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Data Science

Flow, Gamers and Superusers

CsikszentmihalyiHave you ever experienced a time when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you forgot about your physical feelings and the passage of time? This highly-rewarding mental state is known as flow, and it is studied and characterized by a renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I had the great pleasure of hearing Prof. Csikszentmihalyi himself speak on this topic at the Persuasive2009 conference. The talk was enlightening and made me understand why I sometimes forgot to eat or sleep when deeply absorbed in solving a problem.


According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an optimal state that can be attained when the challenges we encounter are matched to our ability. When the task is slightly too easy (or too hard) we fall out of flow and go into a state where we feel in control (or aroused if the task is slightly too hard). When the task difficulty greatly exceeds our skills, we are likely to experience anxiety. And if the task challenges do not come close to our ability, we will often experience boredom (see figure).


Flow Mental StatesAs illustrated by the figure, this also implies that when we are in a state of control or relaxation, we simply have to challenge ourselves and pick a more difficult task to get back into flow. However, if we picked a task that is too hard, we must learn and increase our skills gradually in order to move back into flow. Therefore, we learn the most when we are in the arousal state.


Picking a task that is just challenging enough for us to move into the flow state is not easy because the tasks we encounter do not have a continuous range of difficulty. Moreover, the exact level of challenge for a task is difficult to gauge. In an attempt to challenge ourselves, we often pick a task that is too hard and go into a state of anxiety. This is why many people like to stay in the comfort zone of control and relaxation and do not like to challenge themselves. Consequently, flow is not a common mental state.



Although flow is not common, Prof. Csikszentmihalyi has mentioned that they are more prevalent in creative professionals, such as artists, composers, poets, scientists, mathematicians, etc... This is because these professions require much self-challenge to create something novel and original. Due to the distinctive gaming heritage of Lithium, we know another group of people who often experience flow. Can you guess? Yes, they are the gamers. If you know friends who are into gaming, or if you have teenage children who are addicted to computer games, you will know what I am talking about. They will play tirelessly for hours, if not days, straight.


So what is it about video games that enable people to move into flow so easily? Actually, games in general (not limited to video games) can create an artificial environment where the task difficulty is well-controlled and increase gradually. This makes it much easier for gamers to pick a just-challenging-enough game to move them into flow (B2 in figure). Even if a gamer accidentally chose something too difficult, it would most likely not be something totally beyond his skill. So, they would experience arousal (B3) rather than anxiety or worry (B4), which is undesirable. In the arousal state, gamers only have to learn a little bit to increase their skills sufficiently to move back into flow (C). This will in turn encourage gamers to take on more challenges. This feedback dynamic is what makes so many gamers addicted to playing their favorite games.


Flow Dynamics

As a practitioner of this theory, Lithium knew all along that the reason a superuser would spend 8 hours online answering questions is precisely the same reason that a gamer would play for days without sleeping. In fact, the Lithium platform is built upon our deep understanding of various gaming and social dynamics. The control--arousal--flow dynamic is just one of many that are deeply ingrained in our rich and flexible reputation engine. This is the reason we are able to attract and keep those superusers who will spend many hours on our communities. Moreover, because flow is inherently a rewarding and desirable mental state, superusers are often happy to volunteer their time and effort. To them, it's just like playing a game.


Despite my personal rediscovery of the connection between flow, gamers, and superuers, I must clarify that I am not claiming that a superuser answering questions online is necessarily experiencing flow. Whether superusers truly experience flow is a research question that can only be addressed via the scientific method. I was just inspired by Csikszentmihalyi and wanted to share the spark in my mind.


Having discussed the relationship between flow, gamers, and superusers, next time we will apply the theory of flow to help us design the optimal ranking structure that engages the superusers. Stay tuned at mich8elwu.


Excellent post, doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation about flow that we had on Friday. I mentioned it to my wife and earlier in the day, she herself had addressed flow with her managers at their weekly managers' meeting! (She, like me, is reading Happiness Hypothesis.)

Interesting!  I'm eager to read the next part.

this is unusual....

Data Science

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to my blog and thank you for the comment and the kudos. I'm glad you find this article unusual and interesting. Rather than just giving a bunch of hand-waving advice, I hope I can use this blog to give you a deeper theoretical understanding behind our best practices. I hope you will find future articles as enjoyable as this one.

I was playing a facebook version of bejeweled called bejeweled blitz the other day. you get 1 minute to play the game and score as high as you can. all your friends scores are posted, so naturally, I felt the need to try and beat the high score and be #1 among my friends. needless to say, I easily killed an hour or two playing that game. That's 60-120 times!

If you get hung up on Bejeweled, better stay away from their new zombie game - it's totally addicting!

@jloyless: <grin> plants vs zombies

Data Science

Hello FM Addicted,


Being a scientist, I am some what like that too. Well, I hope you won't lose too much sleep though. Even though Flow is an extremely desirable state, eating and sleeping is important in the long run so we can enjoy more future flow states. Take care and thanks for the comments.


Just came across this, MIke W.  As a strategist in the game-based learning arena, your well articulated post caught my eye.  Looking forward to reading more!


Al Meyers



Data Science

Hello Al,


Thanks for the comment and I'm happy to hear that you find the article interesting. I'm glad that you tell me about your interest. I will make a note of it and try to find more opportunities to blog about other game-dynamics in social media related topics.


Hi Mike,


There was a book I read in the late 70's " Stress, distress, and growth "  by Walt Schafer.

(Published 1978 by Responsible Action in Davis, Calif .  Stress, distress, and growth Walt Schafer.Published 1978 by Responsible Action in Davis, Calif . )
I read it at UCD. I want to thank you for reminding me about it. The thinking has guided me through many things: exercise, emotional distress, and conselling others. Your graphics illustrate the qualities that evolve from applying the concepts in the book. 
Since those olden days, I find myself seeking graphical expressions of ideas and concepts that defy communication in text. In this case, the match is delightfully precise. 
I'm curious to see how to apply these principles to augment the effectiveness of serious games. One of my issues with serious gaming, and all gaming, is how deterministic the game dynamic and game mechanics in balance. 
Is there some means of evaluating (quantifying) the balance? 


Data Science

Hello Paul,


Thank you for dropping by and commenting. I actually don't know that book and haven't read it. But I'll try to remember to check it out next time re-visit UC Berkeley Library.


The first diagram is adopted from Prof Csikszentmihalyi himself. But I did create the 2nd diagram. And I'm glad that it conveys the point across to you well.


The concept of flow is applied quite frequently to real games as well as gamification. And when a game mechanic/dynamic is designe proerly, they are very deterministic. Some of them are so deterministic that they are equated to the Patellar reflex of your knee. But it is often very hard to get the game mechanics/dynamics just right for everyone. If you are interested in this topic, I recommed you take a look at the couple of articles I've posted recently:

   1. Gamification from a Company of Pro Gamers

   2. The Magic Potion of Game Dynamics

More will come later. So stay tuned!


Alright. I hope I've address your questions. Hope to see you on Lithosphere again.


When you work on high value tasks at a high and continuous level of activity, you can actually enter into an amazing mental state called "flow."

In the state of "flow," which is the highest human state of performance and productivity, something almost miraculous happens to your mind and emotions.
You feel elated and clear. Everything you do seems effortless and accurate. You feel happy and energized. You experience a tremendous sense of calm and personal effectiveness.

ref: Book: eat that frog, author: Brian Tracy

great post @MikeW

Data Science

Hello @jigarjoshi,


Welcome to my blog and thank you for the comment. 

Glad you like this post.


Hope to see you again on the community.



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