Flow: two sides to the story.

Many speakers include references to “flow” when trying to explain the joy of playing games. This idea is central to @avantgames portrait of gamers at productive work.

It should be pointed out that Csikzentmihalyi actually talks about high and low states of flow. The confluence of emotion, cognitive function, social affect and self perception.

Gamers also suffer negatively from low flow experiences, yet it’s affective impact is generally ignored when trying to entertain us with games magical effects. Gamers are easy to criticise themselves and feel depressed in low flow. The have trickle trouble processing information such as “time to get off” or “if you don’t get off …” type ultimatum.

Now here’s the question. If a kid is made to play a game at school which produces low flow (boring, too easy, too hard etc) … then the kid will react by not taking in information, feeling bad about the result of play and so on.

This could well mean so called educationally mutated “games” make kids depressed and learn less than if they could avoid them by doing something else.


Are you adding Flow or ZPD to eLearning chemistry?

The concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) describes an optimal mental state where a person is complete occupied with a task that matches the person’s skills, being neither too hard (leading to anxiety) or easy (leading to boredom).

In many ways this is might appear similar to the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) educators might know this as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. Csikszentmihalyi sees flow in a more sophisticated way – from the domain of games.

Games are designed, or at least should be attempt to find that perfect balance that keeps us in flow. As technology improves, we can’t keep calling them video-games. They are haptic complex systems that you can stand and dance with, hold, wave, shake, press or hide in your pocket. Games are complicated learning-feedback systems and within them is the possibility of finding flow. Kids know this – they expect to find it and more often than not the commercial games industry delivers. Let’s just say that these things are learning management systems, they are just more sophisticated and enjoyable than most instructional design – especially the largely diabolical edu-games. Anyone that says learning should not be joyful should leave now.

In the classroom, a teacher has to try and know the ZPD balance. Let’s assume this isn’t a classroom where game-play and imagination is a common pedagogical method (there are classrooms where it is).  It’s hard enough to know where the ZPD balance is when you’re dealing with one child, let alone thirty or so. This is one reason I think parents are foolish to leave education to teachers – most of the time parents stand a better chance of designing for their kids ZPD than their teacher, but working with a teacher (not moaning about them) seems like a good idea. Not at all sure what social-barriers stop that, but they seem to [can’t be bothered to research that, but I bet there’s a gazillion papers].

Regardless of research, education is still made up of a series of objects that have been around for centuries (books, desks, teacher, rules, light, sound, text, other people). More recently computers and LIMITED parts of the Internet. Mobile Phones, Video-Game Systems are all way too new to even be contemplated as at the outset, we design around the teacher’s willingness and ability to do (anything) and then the student ability to respond appropriately within some fairly rigid boundaries of content and outcomes. The belief is that games and phones are not efficient or useful to teachers, so we ban, ignore or kick them into ‘endless discussion world’.

There are infinite variables in a classroom, therefore it’s unrealistic to say that you can gamify it. Those people are barking-mad, like their cousins who think more people on Twitter will create deeper knowledge or that a human teacher can zone in on individual kid ZDP reliably.

Teacher’s who set out to use technology, have a social, moral and professional responsibility to ensure they make these variables  controllable – as the quality of  control has a direct relationship to the quality of teaching (see point 5). When teachers remove things that make learning un-fun, as game designers remove un-fun things from games (tedious walking around or waiting for action to happen) – then you are in a position to start step 1 on Csikszentmihalyi’s list. If the teachers skills are limited to Microsoft Office, email and Googling then … blah.

In the list below, the first three things to me are essential skills of teachers. It should not all take place inside a computer, but to me if they use technology well they’ll get to step 4 most of the time. Compare that to teachers who endlessly fight for control – the classroom behavior management stuff. I think, in fact I know, that steps 1-3 largely determine the rest, so behavior is designed into the agenda, as a positive force for engagement. That doesn’t mean sitting up nicely, facing the front or raising your hand to be asked a question.

In summary, Flow has seven traits and I’ve sketch out how I see these things relating to eLearning design.

1. A challenging Activity That Requires Skills (requires teacher imagination)
2. The Merging of Action and Awareness (requires technology integration and innovation)
3. Clear Goals and Feedback (requires understanding of what quality feedback is and how to give it)
4. Concentration on the Task at Hand (requires kids to operate in virtual/physical space they feel secure in)
5. The Paradox of Control (requires teachers to become moderators/facilitators – play-makers)
6. The loss of Self-Consciousness (requires kids to trust teachers and visa versa)
7. The Transformation of Time (requires abandoning the 9-3 time-table, and allow kids to try 24/7)

So when your kid isn’t listening, transfixed on what they are doing – it’s because they are, theoretically and arguably in this flow. Of course there are those that say this is rubbish, games are a waste of time, will rot your brain or make you a violent anti-social loner.

Ask them then, how they could, given infinite resources that cannot be considered a ‘game’ , achieve these seven traits for 8 hours straight in one person. Then perhaps ask them how they can do it with half a million. If it’s rubbish, then games would not hold our attention as they do in my view – and this is important because when it comes to eLearning, the feedback is often so dismal, especially in Distance Education, that I seriously doubt the convener, teacher or tutor could pull of ZPD let alone flow.

How to keep attention flowing

Borrowing from Flow-theory, and easing a somewhat ranty-last-post about people believing tokens and level ups will engage students, I thought I’d add something about the variables involved, and the problem of creativity.

First some variables. Not all kids like video games, not all kids like computers. Most kids don’t like sofware that crashes or tasks that seem unconnected with the software being used. Teachers used to be kids, so it’s no shock they too feel the same way. But there are other factors at play (pun).

Phenomenological factors: including the relevance of instruction and perceived control; meaningful inquiry to solve real life problems that extend beyond the classroom and  positive emotions in the classroom.

Instructional and teacher factors: instructional format and school subject; student-controlled versus teacher-controlled learning activities and that external evaluations that emphasise social comparisons also appear to have negative consequences on students’ interest and engagement.

Demographic factors and learning history: engagement can be mediated by individual factors, for example more girls than boys, the degree to which ontask behavior has been rewarded or praised in the past – although these factors are smaller in comparison with instructional and classroom factors.

What we are dealing with is often described as long term disenagement with school, not an immediate or short-term dislike (often influenced by external factors) of the teacher or lesson, and of course not all kids are disengaged. (looks for the magic pill).

For some kids, the relationship with school has often not been as long term positive as their relationship with games in the same period. For many kids, games are an increabily positive experience – as play is a humanistic behavior that comes naturally. It’s a balance, too much or too little of anything will be a bad thing.

Game space has the ability to increase creativity and to develop better ways to evaluate the impact of new creative ideas. It’s a very powerful feedback loop. Compare this to excessively, narrow specialisations (single subject, single topic regimes) and we reduce the likelihood of making creative contributions and kill off creativity.

There are many ways to kill creativity.

Turning games into game based learning, while a novelty, may not sharpen the focus for problem solving as being Warcraft like (using quests) is not the same as being a character in Warcraft playing the game.

At the heart of killing creativity, engagement and enthusiam are people who are simply not willing to attempt to be remotely creative. Perhaps victims of their own experience. Each person has, potentially, all the psychic energy needed to lead a creative life. But there are many obstacles that prevent many from expressing this potential. If our attention is overly directed to monitoring the self, or threats to the ego or in pursuing selfish goals we become un-creative – and we do this all the time. It’s easier often to accept defeat.

There are ways to think about fostering game-like, creative work flows, regardless of the tools you care to use.

What works are predicatable goals – those we are naturally inclined to persue, and those what stop the exodus to our own virtual-reality which as the lady says, feels less broken.

•    There is immediate feedback to your actions
•    There is a balance between challenges and skills
•    Action and awareness are merged
•    Distractions are excluded
•    There is no worry of failure
•    Self-consciousness disappears
•    The activity becomes autotelic .

When games foster creativity, we enter a whole new zone. (Flow)

Creative people often blend pride in community with pride in work. Many of them are driven by a feeling of responsibility for the common good. They shoulder this as a privilege rather than work. If they don’t get it, then all that creative engery is wasted. This is on reason people play games – as a refuge to keep spikey ideas temporarily at bay. When the game lets you be creative however, as Minecraft does, it teaches us to use our creative energy. To do that we have to learn about so many things that ultimately give us direction.

Think about Flow, Substantives and Verbs

According to Flow Theory, when people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following:

1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing;
2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing;
3. The task has clear goals;
4. The task provides immediate feedback;
5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life;
6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions;
7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over; and
8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it. Games it appears to me are wrapped around substantives – in that they describe the time, the place, the objects etc., It is the verbs that are used that create the game play. How different these are in game-play makes it all the more interesting that game designers manage to hold the players attention, when largely it could be skipped in favour of mastering the game routines. So I wonder, if players can essentially learn to skip the substantives – ignore the narrative – if they are not facing the same dilemma as teachers – in attempting to deter surface learning – but because they utlise ‘fun’ and ‘flow’ – I wonder how effective the Web2.0 toolkit is in creating Flow inside the current education paradigm. If the answer is yes — then we have some very valuable teachers amongst us. I don’t see a null hypothesis — but do we have these people in key leadership positions – and if not why?