Erik M. Gregory, PhD
Executive Director, Media Psychology Research Center
We rely on story telling to understand our world. Stories provide the ideal context for a message and an avenue for engagement. Today, video gaming is a modern way of telling stories. Understanding how individuals engage in interactive narrative and virtual storytelling has implications for understanding media’s popularity and for the development of useful educational interactive media.
Researchers in the field of positive psychology have utilized investigative methods that provide insight into people’s daily-lived experiences. This has generated a great deal of information on people’s daily actions, thoughts, and feelings including “Flow” states—a term that has been coined to define the experience of becoming engaged in activities that bring challenge to a set of skills. With increasingly sophisticated graphics and story lines, game designers are reaching a larger gaming audience. Research tools, such as Experiential Sampling Methodology (ESM) allow researchers to better measure how story influences the level of engagement in education and media.
Dr. Gregory is Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department Chair at MSPP. He serves as the Executive Director of the Media Psychology Research Center of Boston and is a board member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (www.bostonphil.org). He consulted with Hit Entertainment on the educational content of “Bob the Builder” and worked in conjunction with KCET to develop “Sid the Science Kid. He has also worked extensively with organizations including Volvo and the Boston/Egypt Cancer Network Alliance.
As human beings, we rely on story telling to understand our world. Stories provide the ideal context for a message and an avenue for engagement. Today, video gaming is a modern way of telling stories. Understanding how individuals engage in interactive narrative and virtual storytelling has implications for continued growth and development in the gaming industry.
Researchers in the field of positive psychology have utilized investigative methods that provide insight into people’s daily-lived experiences. This has generated a great deal of information on people’s daily actions, thoughts, and feelings including “Flow” states—a term that has been coined to define the experience of becoming engaged in activities that bring challenge to a set of skills. Computer gaming reflects an opportunity for gamers to match their skills with the games’ challenges, thus creating Flow experiences. With increasingly sophisticated graphics and story lines, game designers are reaching a larger gaming audience. Research tools, such as Experiential Sampling Methodology (ESM) allow researchers to better measure the level of the gamers’ engagement and experience.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, credited with coining “ESM,” has described this methodology as a means of creating a database of human behavior. For over 30 years, ESM has been used for a variety of applied and theoretical research questions in medicine, the social sciences, and communication (Kubey, Larson, & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Researchers and developers in the computer gaming industry and its allied fields can also utilize this “snapshot” of a gamers’ experiences (in this case while the player is engaged in a game) to measure multiple levels of the gamers’ engagement.
Flow is defined as activities in which there is a match between high challenge and high skills (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The outcome of Flow is that the ego, or self-consciousness, disappears, after which people report feeling stronger and more vital (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Research participants of Flow report feeling best when skills and challenges are both high, and tend to be negative, regardless of the activity, if challenges and skills are low (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).
Typically, when individuals reach a certain point of concentration, they describe feeling a sense of complete absorption. Csikszentmihalyi points out that the only remaining architecture we know of from past cultures are their symbols of deep engagement—such as the temples, sports arenas, and ancient theaters. Similarly, video gaming today provides an opportunity for individuals to step out of everyday life and experience something different.
Gaming provides an opportunity for action that is in balance with the ability to act (the match of skills and challenges). If one considers any sort of game or art form, there is a match of skill to a challenge (in sports, for example, one wants to play an equal opponent so as to be challenged). This results from the concentration taking place when one is challenged, skills are in balance, goals are clear, and feedback is present. Flow researchers have found that the worst moments in an individual’s day-to-day life are when he or she is self-conscious.
When challenge and skills are out of balance, life can feel unsatisfying to those who feel overwhelmed (the challenges of life exceed the individual’s time or skills) which results in anxiety and stress; and those who feel “underwhelmed” (the challenges of life do not engage an individual’s time or skills) and therefore the individual becomes bored and anxious.
The Conditions of a Flow Experience
To date, the conditions for Flow have been found to be universal and apply to individuals regardless of socio-economic status, education, and gender (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Over 8000 interviews from individuals around the world including Japan, Korea, India, Europe, and the United States were collected to validate the universality of the Flow experience and its characteristics (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). The conditions of the Flow experience can be elicited through well-designed interactive technology and outlined as:
- Goals are clear–an individual is aware of what she or he wants to do
- Immediate feedback–an individual knows how well he or she is doing at any moment
- Skills match challenges–the skill level of an individual is in balance with the task at hand
- Concentration is deep–the individual focuses all attention on the task at hand
- Problems are forgotten–the individual is able to dismiss irrelevant stimuli that may interfere with concentration
- Control is possible–a feeling of mastery is gained
- Self-Consciousness disappears–an individual feels able to transcend the limits of the ego
- The sense of time is altered–an individual either loses track of time or time seems to pass with rapidity
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding—the experience is worth engaging in for its own sake
Placing players within Flow is the key to video gaming’s universal appeal. The game provides an “action system” where skills and challenges are progressively balanced. The goals are clear, feedback is immediate, and the gamer is often deeply engaged in the narrative and action to the point of losing track of time.
The Experience Sampling Method (ESM)
ESM is a research procedure that examines what people think, feel, and do in their daily lives. This approach asks participants to systematically self-report at random times, which provides a snapshot of an individual’s daily experiences.
ESM is used as a way of surmounting the methodological limitations of other research procedures. Instead of traditional survey methods that rely on retrospective data or reconstruction by research participants, ESM collects immediate self-reports on the action, thoughts, and feelings of an individual thereby providing a snapshot of one’s daily life. Because this method captures mood states in a generally unobtrusive manner while individuals go about their daily life activity, the researcher has a valid and reliable procedure that can be used within the ecological contexts of people’s daily experiences. Additionally, this methodology does not rely on a single assessment, but rather repeated measurements across a period of time. This repeated sampling of an individual’s experience allows the collection of small events to be woven into a tapestry that allows for insight into a greater dynamic process.
ESM has been applied to the study of school performance (Kubey et al., 1996); the interaction of couples (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1983); and work satisfaction (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1983). Essentially, any group with members who have a willingness to respond to a signaling device four to eight times per day can be studied with ESM. Researchers and programmers could easily build in a program to select video games to be studied for the gamer/tester to stop the playing action and respond to a series of questions at the moment of play. These results could be either recorded or sent to a central online database.
Video games engage the player on multiple levels by creating rewards, obstacles, stories, character traits, and increasing levels of difficulty as the gamer increases her or his skill in the game. By studying video gaming, researchers already better understand the interaction individuals have with technology, its impact, and how to create technological environments within a rich narrative context. Educators, programmers, software developers, corporate and military trainers, health care professionals, and creators of entertainment technology can use this “Flow” framework for understanding the success of video gaming in developing engaging technology. Improved learning environments can be created by providing clear goals, challenging the user’s existing skills, and providing the user more control of their learning in a novel manner.
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