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When Playing Video Games, Go for the Flow

Research suggests highly skilled players who achieve a "flow state" are buffered against the games' negative psychological impact.
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(Photo: Axstokes/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Axstokes/Shutterstock)

Despite a preponderance of evidence, a number of noted researchers continue to express doubts that playing violent video games can lead to aggressive real-world behavior. New research points to a possible reason for this lack of consensus.

It finds the level of aggression and hostility such games produce varies considerably depending upon the skill of the individual player.

“Those who are the most skilled may be the least affected by violent content,” Indiana University researcher Nicholas Matthews writes in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. His research suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, hardcore players may be “less impacted by violent video games than more casual gamers.”

Matthews describes a study featuring 122 university undergraduates. All spent time (anywhere from six to 48 minutes) playing a custom-built game set in a medieval dungeon.

When things are humming along nicely and you’re focused on the finish line, the individual steps it takes to get there—violent as they may be—don’t register as strongly, leaving fewer psychological scars.

“Players were tasked to navigate the dungeon, eliminate eight hostile guards, and kill the boss in the final room,” he notes. They experienced the game in third-person perspective, and used a sword and a shield as weapons. All continued playing until they killed the boss and obtained “the last critical quest item.”

They then filled out a series of questionnaires. They reported how difficult they found the game to be, and how skillful at games they considered themselves in general. Their level of hostility was measured, as was the extent to which they perceived the just-completed game as violent and gory.

They also answered questions designed to determine the extent to which they were experiencing aggressive thoughts or feelings. Specifically, they read about three interpersonal conflicts, and were asked “to list four to five things that they thought the main characters would think, and four to five things the main characters would feel for each.”

In addition, they reported the extent to which they experienced a “flow state” while playing the game. As conceived by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “an optimal balance between skill and challenge, characterized by intense focus.” Matthews argues that highly skilled players who enter a flow state are less likely to focus on “each individual act of violence” as they keep their eyes on the prize—that is, winning the game.

To that end, the players were asked another set of questions after finishing play, designed to determine whether their minds were attuned to the mechanics of achieving a goal, or rather to the goal itself. For example, they identified “locking a door” as either “putting a key in the lock” or “securing the house.”

Matthews found the players with the greatest skill did indeed think more in goal-oriented terms than the others. Consistent with this, he also found that “as skill level increases, people perceive the same content as less violent.”

What’s more, this perception apparently affected their post-game mood. Matthews reports that “as skill level increased, hostility decreased.” Specifically, he found that “for both aggressive thoughts and feelings, higher skilled players tended to report the fewest aggressive responses.”

“Achieving flow during game play may make a game’s narrative more psychologically central,” he argues. In other words, when things are humming along nicely and you’re focused on the finish line, the individual steps it takes to get there—violent as they may be—don’t register as strongly, leaving fewer psychological scars.

If Matthews’ theory is correct—it certainly needs to be tested further—games could be designed to increase the likelihood of entering a flow state, and thus decrease post-game aggression. “Creators should minimize stimuli that might hamper/interrupt flow states,” such as shifts in the player’s point of view, he suggests.

He adds that game designers might want to minimize violent content in the early stages of a game, while virtually all players are getting up to speed and unlikely to have achieved a flow state.

Matthews concedes his interpretation of these findings is not definitive, and further research should explore other potential reasons why highly skilled players have a different emotional response to a game's violent content. (One assumes they finished the game in less time than the others; perhaps that is part of the explanation.)

But that news alone is an interesting addition to the video-game debate. However problematic they may be, these games aren’t going away; if ways can be found to blunt their negative impacts on players’ psyches, the benefits could be enormous.