Happiness is a habit and a skill. According to Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the brain can learn to maintain happier, more compassionate states through consistent training. I believe that one way this kind of training can be done is through the responsible and intentional design of virtual reality (VR) and video games to support the experience of flow.

Flow can be defined as a “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Flow is the zone in which the challenge we face is well balanced with the skills we have — the task is appropriately difficult to keep us from getting bored, but not so difficult that we become frustrated or anxious.

Flow is the state you enter when, among other conditions, your skills are a good match for the challenge before you. Image source

Game designers are no strangers to flow. Raph Koster popularized the relationship between flow and video games in his book, “A Theory of Fun,” and flow has been a part of game design discussions ever since. But flow existed long before video games. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how everyone from farmers in remote lands, to master meditators, to entire civilizations have thrived by tapping into flow. And it makes sense why people spend so much time searching for flow: Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, describes how flow helps us perform better, makes us less self-conscious, and releases some of the most potent feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Action sports, meditation, creative activities, and religious experiences are some of many potential sources of flow. Video games are, too, because their very design aligns with some of the conditions for flow: namely, having concrete goals, demanding action just on the cusp of a person’s capabilities, clear and timely feedback, and reduction of distractions. (In contrast, watching television is too passive an activity to meet these flow criteria). Video games are good at putting players in flow, but more progress can be made. Kotler describes flow as an emotion that we can experience in a shallow or deep manner. VR may be the key to reaching deeper levels of flow than non-VR video games support.

In Kotler’s recent book (co-authored with Jamie Wheal), “Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work,” the authors share that “Palo Alto Neuroscience, a Silicon Valley startup, has developed a system that can tag the biomarkers of a non-ordinary state [essentially, flow]—that is, brainwaves, heart rate variability, and galvanic skin response—and then use neurofeedback to guide you back there later. Trained meditators like Tibetan monks can put themselves into a transcendental state, and the machine will record their profile. Soon, as the technology matures, a novice will be able to put on the device and use these biomarkers to steer toward the same experience.” There are also efforts to recreate different styles of meditation and make them accessible through VR headsets. VR is beginning to offer consciousness-altering experiences at an exciting scale and rate. That means that what once required years of practice may soon be able to be achieved much faster in VR.

[Related article: VR and Empathy: Tread Carefully]

However, a caveat: Csikszentmihalyi points out that flow is neither inherently good nor bad. Flow can be achieved in productive or destructive tasks and is simply a tool to be used wisely. If VR has the potential to induce flow using “passive” experiences where the player is not necessarily putting forth effort, does it still meet all the necessary conditions of flow as it’s currently defined? When it comes to VR and flow, developers may need support and resources to ensure that this exciting medium fosters authentic self-development rather than simply an escape or a shortcut.


About the Author

Eric Vignola is a game developer, thinker, and obsessive. He uses artificial intelligence and interactive experiences to help players explore some of life’s toughest questions. In the past, Eric has helped create tools that allow video game authors to create more expressive worlds that allow for deeper player interaction through artificial intelligence. Presently, he is creating a game about the experience of being biracial in the United States and feelings of social isolation. Eric is planning to create an online media company that uses micro games and blog posts to help people develop greater levels of emotional intelligence through play.