Flow in Online Shooters

Flow in Online Shooters

You’re in the middle of expressing excitement for Red Dead Redemption 2 with a disinterested colleague when the new guy in the office interjects with his equal anticipation for Rockstar’s next big release. He mentions his current endeavors in Persona 5 and suddenly you’re both reminiscing about Final Fantasy VII as your introduction to JRPGs, and you share in the comradery of growing up as a Sonic kid, owning the less popular Sega Genesis.

Now you’re grabbing coffee with a friend of friend and you’re using Pokémon as supporting evidence for evolution. She laughs and asks whether you prefer PC or console gaming. You mostly play on consoles these days, but you’ve lost a sizable chunk of your life to Diablo II. Soon you’re swapping stories about hauling your desktop to a friend’s house for another all-night LAN party, exploiting Baal runs and Cow Levels, fueled by Mountain Dew (Code Red of course) and pizza.

The serendipitous discovery that the stranger you’re conversing with is a fellow gamer can lead to wonderful discussions that can rival playing video games themselves.

But lately I’ve stumbled upon a different kind of conversation:

“I like video games. Do you like video games?”

“Not really. Only Call of Duty.”


More and more I encounter people who disassociate themselves with gamers, but obsess over Call of Duty. And it’s not just CoD. Competitive Online First-Person Shooters as a whole have risen to a level of popularity that transcends even the casual gamer.

At E3 in 2016, EA showcased a slew of celebrities participating in a massive deathmatch for their upcoming release of Battlefield 1. Actors and musicians, who’ve displayed no connection with gaming culture before, lined up behind a giant network of computer monitors to demonstrate the intense combat of World War I.

Gamers: circa 2016

What is it about online shooters that the mass audience finds so accessible and addicting? What drives a college student to take Adderall (true story) to push his twitch time beyond the limits of his natural cognition?

Much like an alluring point-of-interest found on a world map, this question begged for further exploration.

I began to reexamine my own enjoyment of competitive online shooters, starting with my baptism to Xbox Live, playing games like Halo 2, to current gen titles like Titanfall 2. Taking a studied approach to understanding the pleasure I felt while playing these games, I recognized a similar pattern regarding Flow experiences.

But before I expand on the potential relationship between Flow and online shooters, allow me to give some context to the notion of a Flow experience.

Developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (for those struggling–I know I sure as hell did–his name is pronounced: Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High), Flow is the cognitive concept of optimal experience. Csikszentmihalyi posits that we are happiest when order is brought to consciousness through our complete immersion in the activity before us. It’s that experience when you lose yourself and your perception to the passage of time. Consider that night you and three friends linked your Xbox 360s together and finally survived level 50 of Horde Mode, your sonic boom high-fives of success met with disbelief at the rising sun.

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi outlines common elements that he uncovered through countless case studies that make an activity conducive to a state of flow. Csikszentmihalyi determined that the majority of optimal experiences come with the expense of mental energy in goal-directed activities that are governed by rules.

But isn’t to achieve a goal within the bounds of an established set of rules the basic definition of any game? What makes online shooters any different from say…turn-based RPGs?

Certainly there’s much fun to be had playing any video game. But your quality of experience varies depending on the activity. It’s hard to not get frustrated after devoting a half hour to building up your Terran forces only to be decimated by some twelve year old kid from Korea. Likewise, it’s easy to get bored while button-mashing your way through endless waves of enemies in Dynasty Warriors.

Dynasty Horde
Extremely easy

Csikszentmihalyi theorized that the quality of experience is primarily determined by a person’s skill level and task difficulty. When performing an activity that you’re familiar with, a state of Flow can be induced by striking an ideal balance between your ability to complete the given task and the level of challenge you face to do so. The following diagram is Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow model which illustrates how challenge level and skill level relate to quantify an experience.

For example, you may feel an unbearable level of anxiety when taking a final exam (challenge level: high) for a class that you frequently skipped (perhaps FFX just came out and you were coincidentally home sick the next day) and never bothered to study for (skill level: low). Similarly, you might find it relaxing when you and a buddy, both avid gamers (skill level: high), play through a simple side-scrolling beat-em-up, where there fighting moves are few and the pizza is plentiful (challenge level: low).

Flow chart

Now that we know what triggers an individual to experience Flow, we can explore the main characteristics of what makes a certain activity more conducive to Flow—characteristics found to be prevalent in competitive online shooter.

We’ve already established that a major component in the Flow experience is to have clear goals. And although it’s within the nature of most games to have clear goals, it’s when those goals are coupled with quick feedback that we see an individual more easily slip into a state of Flow.

When playing a JRPG you can grind for hours and never really know whether your party is strong enough to defeat Lavos until the boss battle begins. And even then it can take 10, 15, or even up to 20 minutes of strategically selecting moves before receiving feedback on your success or failure to save the world. In motor sport games your goal could not be more clear: win the effing race! But you won’t know if your talents as a wheelman are worthy of the circuit until you cross the finish line.

Despite the overall directive in online shooters to win a match, the main goal you devote all attention to could not be more direct: kill the opposition before they kill you. And what makes competitive first-person shooters so conducive to Flow is this clear goal paired with a quick feedback loop. Kill? Success! Killed? Fail! And this feedback loop is especially effective in the immediacy in which you get to try again–a common feature which has you respawn on the battlefield within seconds of dying, ready to correct your last mistake.

My K/D ratio is the most compelling part of my personality

It’s this tight cycle of action in a challenging situation that gives the player a sense of exercising control. Repeatedly applying your skill to reduce your margin of error as close to zero as possible is paramount in experiencing a loss of self-consciousness.

This loss of self-consciousness is what makes the Flow experience so enjoyable. However, this does not mean a loss of consciousness. A Flow experience demands a great deal of concentration (which could explain the misplaced desire to abuse Adderall). Nor does it mean a loss of the self, for a Flow experience additionally requires the skills of the self.

A loss of self-consciousness allows for self-transcendence, where the practitioner temporarily forgets about themselves as an individual and all their worries in the world, and becomes part of a greater system.

Losing self-consciousness allows the self to grow and become more complex. Through momentarily forgetting who we are presents us with an opportunity to compare our old self with the emergent self, post-Flow experience. We get instant feedback and see how our skills improved, or how new skills developed.

Without getting deeper into the psychology of Flow, know that competitive games as a whole are considered to be one of the four main categories of Flow activities. Online first-person shooters are not exclusive to the Flow phenomenon, but employs a gameplay structure that is highly conducive to the Flow experience.

Your duty is to experience some Flow

In general we play video games, chasing that loss of self-consciousness, to temporarily relieve ourselves of reality. So, what games sever your attachment to time and space, leaving you lost in a system that seems greater than yourself? Let us know in the comments below!