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Flow and Trance – A Conversation

Reading Time: 9 minutes (ish)

Last year, Dutch Driver asked a question in the Gamification Hub Facebook group.

Mario Yu-kai et al. were discussing the mobile game phenomenon, Flappy Bird, yesterday and Andrzej commented that the game destroyed our concept of “flow”…this has me thinking that frustration might also have “flow”. What do others say?

Dutch Driver
6 February 2014

What follows is the conversation that this led to, with myself and some of my favorite thinkers in gamification! Enjoy 🙂

  •  Dutch Driver Permanent Achievement…what keeps us from burning out?
    6 February 2014 at 19:17
  •  Roman Rackwitz Nothing keeps us from burning out. I bet that there won’t be many! long-term users.@Andrzej: I just talked today with someone about the difference between flow and trance. We defined trance more about something like a flow-state for easy fun activities –> like Tetris 1st level 🙂 The interesting point here is that the emotional state of being in a state of trance is similar engaging like flow but not depending from skill and challenge increasing at a relative rate. Like driving long ways. You arrive at the destination but don’t really know how 🙂 What do you think? Could be a great expansion of our actual theories. Start with aiming for trance (easier to achieve) than move over to flow…
    6 February 2014 at 19:27
  •  Yu-kai Chou It’s a simple game built on Core Drive 6.
    6 February 2014 at 19:40
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Trance is a state that comes from a lack of stimulation. No challenge an no skill. Driving long distances does just that – and it is deadly lol.
    6 February 2014 at 19:49
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Would you not say a bit of drive 2? Accomplishment
    6 February 2014 at 19:51
  •  Dutch Driver Trance reminds me of trance state in discos with Beat-on-Beat DJ mixing…the idea of BoB is to keep folks on the dancefloor. Less stimulation for change worked to keep crowd on the floor and build on it.
    6 February 2014 at 19:52
  •  Yu-kai Chou There are different relationships between the core drives, what sparks the other. Scarcity inspires empowerment/feedback(process to beat it because it is not easy), which leads to accomplishment, builds into ownership, and finally as a result leads to social influence, which is why people share about their scores on FB. For some loss and avoidance comes in place if they don’t want to be beaten. Studying the flow of core drives and how they shift is something really cool about Octalysis.
    6 February 2014 at 19:55
  •  Roman Rackwitz Exactly: a lack of stimulation.
    But often also a state that people love to achieve. And it is easier to design for because of not measuring challenge and skill. Also, aiming for trance is often relying on already learned stuff. Fits to the hook model and the behavior model. People feel already comfortable doing that. Much better to start from there and adding challenges by time to transfer from trance to flow rather starting with new activities. Much easier to set triggers.
    6 February 2014 at 20:04
  •  Yu-kai Chou The difference between flow and zen 😀
    6 February 2014 at 20:09
  •  Yu-kai Chou Zen mode is basically Easy Fun in Nicole Lazaro’s 4Keys2Fun, and it’s very therapeutic. Just mindlessly have your brain wonder off while feeling you are doing something
    6 February 2014 at 20:25
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Problem with trance is it breaks easily – which can be jarring and unpleasant. This is what you would have to do repeatedly to achieve anything – from a practical point of view what can you get users doing from a skilless unchallenged state that is beneficial in a gamification / behavioural change sense?
    6 February 2014 at 22:45
  •  Dutch Driver The grind is the repetitive nature of practising a skill and using a rhythmic process to induce the trance from a cognitive to an autonomic level.
    7 February 2014 at 03:47
  •  Andrzej Marczewski I would have to see it in action to believe it. Personally I try to avoid any skill learning that involves pure grind – I want challenge and to feel I am getting somewhere lol
    7 February 2014 at 07:26
  •  Roman Rackwitz Andrzej Beneficial in a gamification sense? Onboarding, for example. If you connect the gamified activity with an already established habit it is easier to get accepted by the user. Right now the most effective option we have to get someone onboard is to provide extrinsic rewards. Then we have to transfer his experience from being extrinsic rewarded to being intrinsic rewarded and/or motivated. That’s one of the most difficult part.If we can start with an already adapted habit (and so perhaps easy fun that results rather in trance than in flow) you can avoid the extrinsic rewards from the beginning)
    7 February 2014 at 07:53
  •  Andrzej Marczewski I don’t doubt the concept – just not sure how you could actually do it 🙂
    7 February 2014 at 13:09
  •  Roman Rackwitz hehe…that’s the next point. But it should be easier than to aim for the flow from the beginning concerning a user you don’t know (and his skills)
    7 February 2014 at 13:11
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Here is my thing. If trance is a skill-less and challenge-less state, how do you introduce something that is a challenge or requires a new level of skill (ie learning something during an on-boarding style phase), without breaking that trance state.
    7 February 2014 at 13:25
  •  Roman Rackwitz Oh, I think it. is possible to move smoothly from trance to flow. Like at Tetris from Level1 to the more difficult ones
    7 February 2014 at 13:56
  •  Andrzej Marczewski But that is not what you seem to be proposing. You seem to be suggesting that we have someone engage in an activity that is already habitual (trance like) and then inject things into it?
    7 February 2014 at 14:01
  •  Andrzej Marczewski ” If you connect the gamified activity with an already established habit it is easier to get accepted by the user”
    7 February 2014 at 14:01
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Now, if you are talking about taking something that is really easy (tetris level 1) getting people used to that and then moving up to a harder level – that is already flow. Challenge increases as the user skill level increases. You can keep them in the easy trance phase for longer to make the activity more like muscle memory. That is basically how you learn martial arts 🙂 Do the easy stuff over and over again until it is reflex – then you do the more interesting stuff. Basically how we all learn 😉
    7 February 2014 at 14:03
  •  Dutch Driver Martial arts is out of my experience, BUT when developing that new technique into a reflex is done by repetition, isn’t that the grind? Isn’t the grind operate conditioning similar to the pigeon pecking to get the food over and over without regard to the results that are delivered on a variable reinforcement schedule?
    7 February 2014 at 14:39
  •  Dutch Driver Andrzej remember that you love of a challenge is not the love of skill mastery…unless you are mastering the skill of how to approach newly presented challenges…which is akin to problem-solving, no?
    7 February 2014 at 14:41
  •  Andrzej Marczewski There is grind in martial arts – no doubt – but it has a feeling of actually doing something. It is very different to the grind of MMOs (killing the same small creature over and over again to get more money to buy a better weapon to then go kill a bigger creature over and over again to get more money…)
    7 February 2014 at 15:07
  •  Andrzej Marczewski As for overcoming challenges – that is of course mastery. You have to practice and learn and overcome until you master it. In games this happens over and over again. The rubiks cube, this happens once. Then you try to do it faster. Then in new ways. Then with your eyes closed.I think what I am trying to nail is the definition here of trance vs flow. Actually what we are talking about is really flow – the proper version. In gamification we consider flow as challenge and skill over time. In the original flow model, there is no time. Flow is achieved when skill and challenge are perfectly balanced. This leads to the trance like state people spoke of.
    7 February 2014 at 15:11
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Now. If you consider that as you continue to do something, you get better at it – the level of skill slowly increases. To keep that trance / flow like state the challenge has to subtly rise in line with that – other wise you hit a point where you drop out of flow into boredom.
    7 February 2014 at 15:13
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Look at the model again. What we are discussing here of low skill and low challenge on repeat – is apathy!

    7 February 2014 at 
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Where as – if you keep playing tetris on easy over and over again, you will probably go into relaxation – maybe even trance….
    7 February 2014 at 15:16
  •  Andrzej Marczewski So is trance really high skill low challenge?
    7 February 2014 at 15:16
  •  Dutch Driver Back to the dance DJ example…we would do that by slow increments into faster or slower BPM (beats per minute). That is how Beat-on-Beat mixing induces trances…when I was on the floor under a master DJ, there was a zen-like experience that kept you in the moment.
    7 February 2014 at 15:17
  •  Dutch Driver I have still to solve a Rubik’s Cube…but now that I think of it again, the Cube is like watching a Columbo movie…you know who committed the murder but watching Columbo solve the crime and ensnare the murderer was compelling. The Cube is sold in a solved state…the player has to mix it up to start the puzzle…why is it we try to re-create the wheel when it was solved to start with? Is it destroying order into chaos and trying to restore order again. I know I still pick up the Cube and try…of course, I could buy the solution, but that still seems not quite cricket to me.
    7 February 2014 at 15:24
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Just take the stickers off 😉 We like to solve things and be challenged – that is our nature. You are tapping into the differences between puzzles and games as well. Puzzles we tend to (if not always) know the outcome before we start!
    7 February 2014 at 15:29
  •  Dutch Driver I divide puzzles as a problem of arrangement and problems as a missing element when I worked with groups. They need to assess if they are working a puzzle or a problem.
    7 February 2014 at 15:32
  •  Roman Rackwitz Yeah, it is really complex, right? Let’s take it this way: In the flow (matching challenge with skills) our brain capacities are totally used, and because of this our brain doesn’t have enough resources any more to think about time. This is when we are totally focused and involved in an activity. And what we experience as comfortable.Being in a trance state (like driving a car without knowing how we got to the destination) is a similar emotional state. We like it and it is similar comfortable. But here (because the activity of driving a car is well-known & a habit) our brain capacities are all there. We only need a little amount of it because habits don’t need so much resources. So, we are experiencing the same state twice but with different conditions. Both are great and useful but in Gamification we are only thinking about the flow-way. Why and does it makes sense to think about the other one? Are there advantages?
    7 February 2014 at 16:01
  •  Andrzej Marczewski What you have described is exactly what Csíkszentmihályi qualifies as flow. The state of being in totally in the moment and not realising the passing of time 😉
    7 February 2014 at 16:25
  •  Dutch Driver Roman’s question returns to my question about Flappy Bird and the flow of frustration…if there is such a thing. Maybe we have stumble on an expansion of Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow?
    7 February 2014 at 16:30
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Now, this is interesting and may offer the answer! http://baneofyourresistance.com/…/digital-trance-vs…/Posts about digital trance vs. creative flow on The Bane of Your ResistancePosts about digital trance vs. creative flow written by…baneofyourresistance.com
    7 February 2014 at 16:30
  •  Andrzej Marczewski The number one characteristic of the flow state that’s lacking in a digital trance is a sense of purpose and meaning.
    7 February 2014 at 16:31
  •  Roman Rackwitz But Csíkszentmihályi only talks, as far as I know, exactly about the state when our brain capacities are totally used (125 bit per second, and so on, and so on). He never mentioned to achieve this state with almost no capacities being used
    7 February 2014 at 16:32
  •  Dutch Driver Maybe more properly put as a sense of achievement…the purpose maybe to disconnect from “reality”
    7 February 2014 at 16:32
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Flappy throws you straight in at anxiety. It probably hooks into the fact humans like to overcome a challenge. Also, flappy makes it really easy to try again. There are now pay more to make it easy, long death animations – you face plant and press a button to get going again. it looks so simple, you must be able to defeat it…
    7 February 2014 at 16:34
  •  Dutch Driver So the zen concept of enlightenment is not flow? I understand there is great amounts of practice to achieve Zen Enlightenment or it is instantaneous.
    7 February 2014 at 16:34
  •  Andrzej Marczewski The article is making the argument that when you get caught up in an activity like writing, you have a sense of purpose – you are doing it with a goal in mind. Same for zen really. The trance state is a similar experience, but you are not actively trying to achieve anything. You are in the moment because your focus is not being broken by other more important stimuli
    7 February 2014 at 16:37
  •  Dutch Driver I’ve tried Flappy for about one minute without get through the first pipe opening. I think my eye-hand coordination of being significantly older than most here has a factor…that is my story anyway. 😀
    7 February 2014 at 16:37
  •  Roman Rackwitz But what about being in this state and not being focused? Driving the car and not knowing how you reached your destination is exactly that, isn’t it? Just performing a habit doesn’t need to be focused!!!!7 February 2014 at 16:39
  •  Andrzej Marczewski Also, another characteristic of flow is meant to be joy! “The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task”
    7 February 2014 at 16:39
  •  Andrzej Marczewski But driving you are focused – you are totally focused. As soon as you stop being focused – you crash!
    7 February 2014 at 16:40
  •  Andrzej Marczewski I am not saying you are wrong or right, but you need to find a concrete divide between trance and flow – the concept of caught in the moment whilst having a purpose vs just being in the moment with none
    7 February 2014 at 16:41
  •  Andrzej Marczewski possibly
    7 February 2014 at 16:41
  •  Dutch Driver I am saying the purpose of being without purpose is a purpose. 😀
    7 February 2014 at 16:42
  •  Roman Rackwitz I’m not really interested in the result – the state. Just about the different possibilities to achieve it. Because right now, I think that we are almost only looking at the way to achieve it by challenge – skill. Would be interesting to grow our strategies. 🙂
    7 February 2014 at 16:44
  •  Roman Rackwitz Ok, have to do sports now. I need my flow! Great discussion
    7 February 2014 at 16:44
  •  Dutch Driver yes…there are probably different paths to flow
    7 February 2014 at 16:45

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Andrzej Marczewski
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Gamification thought leader and evangelist, I love to write about it, talk about it and bore people to death with it! If you really want to get to know me, check out the About page.

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