From Fun to FLOW – What’s the Difference?

I posted earlier this week about keeping game-playing fun. I’m sticking with that overarching sentiment, but I think the word ‘fun’ deserves a little more thought. The boy in the photo above is having a whole lotta fun – he’s rolling dice, counting and comparing the two numbers, making tally marks, and counting by 5s. I had to pry him away from the game, in order to eat dinner that night.

His dice game includes many of the elements that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi includes in his theory of flow:

  • It’s a game with clear goals – roll the higher number and win more points
  • He gets immediate feedback with each roll – he can see which number is higher
  • He is in a state of balance between challenges to his math abilities (counting by 5s) and the skills he’s already gained (automatically identifying the number of dots)
  • He is so immersed in the process that he doesn’t notice distractions
  • He has no worry of failing – the process of playing is what he’s enjoying
  • His sense of time has become distortedDinnertime? What are you talking about?

So the games we love the most are probably fun for us because they can take us into a state of flow. There is a huge connection between Csikszentmihlyi’s work and video games. Instead of either dismissing or demonizing video games, many scholars are investigating the value that engaging games bring to the lives of those who play them –  Jenova Chen’s web-site is a great resource for anyone who’d like to learn more about flow in relation to video games.
That said, we’re trying to wait a little longer before investing in video games at our house. S. plays some games on the iPad, and definitely loses track of time and everything around him. I started playing Where’s My Water (Swampy the Alligator) with him the other night, and couldn’t tear myself away, so I guess I’m a little worried about the addictive powers of video games on all of us. Then again, if spending more time in a state of flow potentially leads to greater creativity and fulfillment, maybe more video games would do me good…
What are your thoughts on flow? What games or activities get you into that state of mind?


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.


One thought on “From Fun to FLOW – What’s the Difference?

  1. This is a little beside the question, but I think it fits in somewhat. Last night we watched the DVD Searching for Bobby Fischer from 1993, the story of young Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy, with some references to Bobby Fischer. The film is based on a book written by Josh’s father, Fred Waitzkin. Good film!!! We looked up Josh and found this inspiring biography that brings us up to the present with a gifted game player and perhaps more importan,t a gifted teacher. I’m looking forward to finding his book, the Art of Learning.

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