Tuesday, April 24, 2007

WoW and flow

One of the most popular search words referring to my blog is MMORPG addiction or WoW addiction as I blogged this matter once. It seems that the issue engages, or worries perhaps, many, as for some, playing the game is affecting work, spare time, spending time with friends etc in a negative manner. I can certainly understand the popularity of the game as WoW is highly engaging for players on all levels, for both the noob as well as the the lvl 70 gamer, for the casual player and the hard core player. I’ve praised my restless character many times as it’s unlikely that I dwell on things, or get hooked on one single thing. My WoW-playing is more of the character that when I play, I do it fully and whole heartedly but quite rarely. As soon as I get a little bit tired, I quit. I forget about the game for weeks and when people ask me what level I’m at, I can’t remember. That said, that doesn’t mean I don’t like the game, I do. And it occupies my mind at times as I find myself thinking, “I should log on to see if my items were sold at the auction”, and I sometimes refer to items in the game when talking with friends. The game’s got me good but not hopelessly, in my opinion at least. To me, it’s pure entertainment.

On my desk at work, I have two books of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the issue of flow. I’ve read his theory on what happens when we’re engaged in things we love to do and I’ve applied it on interactivity in media and on iTV but one could also of course apply it to video games.

In short, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we’re the most happy when we’re completely immersed in something we love to do. When this occurs, we’re in a Zen like state of mind, “in flow”. When we find ourselves in that state of mind, we can lose track of time, may forget to eat and probably wouldn’t notice at all if a lion roared behind our back. The flow state is full of enjoyment, fulfillment and pleasure and naturally, it’s a state of mind that most people wish to be in quite often. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a couple of prerequisites must be met in order to this flow state to occur. For instance, there must be clear goals. There must be a challenge but one that relates to the level of skill. It’s like playing a set of badminton with an opponent much better or much less skilled than you, it’s simply not fun nor rewarding. There must be immediate feedback and the actor must have a sense of control.

Now, with WoW, all these requirements are met, in my view. There are two clear goals, the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance, and the goal of reaching lvl 70 and the “end game” (or leveling in general as then, the character is more powerful, gets better gear and stronger aids, and for some reason, humans always strive towards “better”, “higher”, “more”). There’s always something to work towards, depending on your moods. For example, you can develop your character and hunt for better equipment, weapons and gaining experience by completing quests. Or if you’re not up for loads of action, you can sit by the river fishing as that improves the skills of your character and ultimately, helps you reach the goal. The sense of control is great as there’s little that you must do. It’s up to you what quests you do, which skills you have, and what regions you play in. This is one of the big hooks of WoW in my opinion as since you can make what you want of the game, that is you’re designing your own gameplay experience, it’s likely to appeal to you in a great way. If you want a game where you can socialize with your friends or other players a lot and just occasionally go on missions, look no further! If you’re mostly interested in developing your character, feel free to do so. If you’re looking for taking part of an epic story much like a movie, you certainly can do that as well. There are huge challenges for those who look for that, like the raids or instances or trying out quests that are “aimed” at characters at much higher levels. Of course, you can choose easier challenges as well, although the reward of leveling might take a while then.

As the requirements for a flow state are met by the design and structure of the game, I’m not surprised that many find WoW a highly rewarding and entertaining game to which they devote a lot of time and energy. The trick is to keep the playing time at moderate levels.

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