Posted in education, Games

Go with the Flow…

I’ve written a lot about using game theory in education recently.  And I am sure that I will continue to do so, since games have so much to teach us.

As part of this process I’ve tried to break down some examples from my work as an educator.

I’ve looked at some Alternate Reality Games, an essay quest and increasing the work we ask students to do.

One of the reasons that these things work, though, is flow.

‘What is flow?’

I’m glad you asked…

A chap called Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘cheek-sent-me-hi’) wrote a book in which he explored motivation in human beings.  He called it Flow.


Flow is the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity.  You stop thinking about it.  You stop worrying.  You cease to notice the passage of time and you are no longer self-conscious.  You are in a state of flow.

If there is one thing that games do well, it’s flow.

So much so, that I suspect Csikszentmihalyi’s book may be something of a bible to game designers.

This game is literally called ‘flow’.  It was made by ‘That Game Company‘ – the Creative Director and President of the company, Jenova Chen, wrote his thesis on Csikszentmihalyi’s theory.

If you want to know why people keep playing games – flow.  If you want to know why they’d rather play a game than do almost anything else – flow.  If you want to know how to re-engage them with every day activities in the real world – flow.

Flow is experienced when you are challenged and enabled just enough; not so much that you become anxious, and not so little that you become bored.


In other words, if you have just learnt to play chess then playing a grandmaster will likely produce a great deal of anxiety, you will certainly lose and the experience may well put you off chess for life.  On the other hand, if you have become fairly skilled at chess, then playing someone against whom you can easily win becomes boring.  Again – this repeated experience will not encourage you to keep playing.

Games constantly challenge players with tests of skill just slightly above the player’s ability.  As a result, the player is enabled to continue to grow and is likely to be immersed within the game.

I believe that this is what we need to strive towards within education.  In all of the designs that I have referred to in my previous education blogs, this is what I have strived to achieve – more opportunities for flow.

It may sound almost impossible.  Games have artificial intelligence that allow them to gauge each player’s skill versus the challenge within the game.  But classrooms have educators.  Highly skilled individuals that know each child’s current level, and what they need to achieve to develop further.  I would go so far as to say that this is the key skill of any educator.  The trouble is that the system of education rarely frees them to do this.

I’ll put my rant about the system to one side…

Just think about those moments in your life when you have experienced flow.  When were they?  What were they?  Were they in education?

Raph Koster says that “with games, learning is the drug.”  Well… shouldn’t that be the case in education too?

And if it isn’t – then we need to get busy.  We need to learn to go with the flow.


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