Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist
Year: First published in 1990, but I read the 2008 reissue with a different forward.

Summary: An important book explaining flow, a concept related to the balance between skill and challenge. However, I recommend skipping the book and just reading the articles instead.


“Flow’ is a term I’ve been reading about at around the same time I entered the game industry. It’s often referenced by game designers, with various articles espousing it, direct references in most (all?) game design textbooks, and academic critiques of the concept. It’s important enough that I believed reading the source material would give me greater insight into flow and how I can use it in my work.

Unfortunately, that was not really the case. While there’s a few new details I learned about flow from reading the book, the bulk of relevant knowledge can be found in the following articles: Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games“, Sean Baron’s “Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design” and countless others written by game designers that are floating around the internet. I recommend skipping the book (unless you want to check it off from your list like I did) and just read the articles. That said, this whole series is about reviewing game design books, so I’ll get into that now.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience isn’t particularly long at 240 pages, though the text is compact and the content very dry, dense, and – unfortunately – boring. If flow is supposed to be a state of rapt focus and attention, this book definitely failed to induce it in me.

The content of the book revolves around (unsurprisingly) the concept of flow. For those unfamiliar, a flow state is a perfect balance between skill and challenge that allows people to achieve a very fulfilling, engaging, and focused mental state. Too much challenge leads to anxiety, and too little leads to boredom. Everyone, I think, can recognize the flow state in their own lives. Think of a situation where you are so engrossed in what you’re doing – running, painting, working, reading, anything – that you aren’t consciously aware of what’s around you or the passage of time. This obviously has applications to games – challenge, skill, dynamic difficulty adjustments, pacing, immersion, and fun are all influenced by it.

The key elements of flow don’t differ from other articles, so I won’t repeat them (please read the articles instead). One detail of flow that I find interesting is that it requires internal, self-driven goals – not external goals or rewards. This leads me to think that most games run counter to a flow state, since they are very focused on those external goals to keep players moving (objectives, collectibles, achievements, scores, etc.). Players who want a real flow state need to bring their own goals into the game, not let the game lead them along – so think of Minecraft creations, speed-running, and self-imposed pacifist runs in violent action games.

Another element that strikes me is that that one of the ways to distinguish mindless leisure from a flow state is that with the latter your consciousness becomes more complex as a result. This is hard to explain but essentially the idea is that when you enter the flow state you are at a balance where challenges appropriately match your skills and you develop or mature by engaging in it. This helps identify, say, mindless grinding for loot in an MMO with much more focused goals (which may include grinding, just not mindlessly done) that lead to a more complex consciousness as you internalize new skills, knowledge, or extend your goals.

Flow covers this concept in detailĀ in chapters three and four and then the author spends the rest of the book discussing examples of the flow state in the lives of many people he has interviewed and even pulling from historical records. These examples include everything from assembly line workers, to surgeons, to chefs, to rock climbers, to people who live solitary lives in hard, back-breaking work. He categorizes them as physical, mental and social sources of flow and takes pains to explain how different people reach their flow state in different ways.

These chapters don’t really add a lot to a game designer’s repertoire. They mostly consist of anecdotes, survey responses, and sort of a long, dry list of examples to back up the importance of flow and how happiness is not tied to income or material needs but rather being in a state of flow. This emphasis on happiness, on the harm of “psychic entropy” (the opposite of flow), and so on makes the book read similar to a self-help book yet the author provides no practical way of putting the content into practice. As a game designer, I wanted a book that could help me structure experiences to create that flow state in others. Instead, I learned that if I want to be happy, I should pursue flow, and a long list of examples of people who’ve done that.

So far of the books I’ve read for this Game Design Library, I liked Flow the least. It was not practical, it didn’t provide me with all that much insight, and I found the author’s writing style very dry and boring. I hesitate to recommend it, and I am honestly not sure who would find the book helpful. Csikszentmihalyi has written other books, including one about flow in creativity that may be more relevant to creative professionals, but I am skeptical after this experience.

3 Comments on “Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

  1. Hey! Reading this review a week ago would have saved me… My week actually! Lol. Your critisism is SPOT on. I don’t understand why this is considered such a seminal text – its long winded, out of date and supremely un-constructive.

    I hate that I was duped into reading a bad self help book by it being presented as a design text.

    You’ve designed some great games FYI. Glad to have stumbled on your blog when googling “what to read INSTEAD of Flow.”

    • Thanks! I wish I had a better recommendation on what to read instead (besides the article links). I’m still hunting for a good game design book out there on balancing challenge and skill instead of that just being a chapter in a larger book.

  2. I had the same issue with this book. It is a disaster. Or at least the first few painful pages were, before I gave up and returned it to the library. I don’t understand how publishers keep putting out this guy’s books. He’s extremely prolific.

    It’s weird that so many others reference his concept of flow since I can’t imagine many people have actually slogged through this mess of a text. And his writing makes me question his methods and from that his conclusions. Though I guess enough of us have experienced flow as he describes it (or as other people more articulately describe it anyway) that it feels intuitively right, so we accept its legitimacy.

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