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Time Speeds Up in Flow States When Playing Video Games

Flow states in video games might reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Key points

  • Flow during video gaming is an optimal mental state characterized by deep absorption during challenging tasks.
  • Flow states induce a loss of sense of self and time and can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • In healthy individuals flow states induced during a video game increase subjective well-being and the felt passage of time.

Flow, as famously described and investigated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a mental state characterized by deep absorption during challenging activities. It is a state of optimal experience that can be elicited by tasks that have clear goals and provide immediate feedback. Chess and basketball players, dancers, climbers, and assembly line workers can all experience flow while entranced by their activities.

How is a state of flow induced? Flow happens at a point of equilibrium between frustration and boredom. If an activity provides a level of challenge that is too low relative to the skill level of the person, one becomes bored. If the challenge is too high relative to the individual’s skill level, one becomes frustrated. The flow state sets in when the level of challenge of the activity meets the skill level of the person. In this sense, flow is related to what we call "fun." Moreover, as our skills improve in the activity, we seek to increase the challenge in order to keep experiencing flow. Climbers will move on to ascend more demanding rock formations. A chess player will seek to play against more skillful opponents.

One of the defining characteristics of this state is the loss of the sense of self and time. As I have elaborated in an earlier post, psychiatric syndromes such as depression, anxiety, and substance dependence are characterized by negatively felt hyper-awareness of the self and of time. Self and time are overly represented in individuals with anxiety and depression, who are stuck with themselves in time and experience states that are the complete opposite of flow (for results from our study partners in Cologne, see: Vogel et al., 2018). Core features of flow states are thus antithetical to these psychiatric symptoms; they lead to less awareness of the self and time.

Therapeutic settings might benefit from experimental flow research utilizing video games. Video games make time fly in a pleasant way and players are so absorbed in the game that they lose their sense of self (Alvarez Igarzábal, 2019). That is the aim of our VIRTUALTIMES project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program: to ameliorate distortions of the sense of time and core symptoms of psychopathological conditions with a game-based virtual reality technology. Inducing flow under controlled laboratory conditions has been considered difficult. However, as we have summarized in a review article, video-game-based paradigms are especially promising, given that they provide clear goals and offer fun tasks that require training of skills.

In the context of our project we had 100 participants play the rhythm game Thumper for 25 minutes in one of two conditions—50 persons in virtual reality (VR) with a head-mounted display and 50 persons on a regular computer screen (2D). Thumper is a dynamic rhythm game, meaning that players need to press buttons on the controller in sync with the soundtrack and visual animations. The player-controlled character is a beetle that advances automatically through a track. The player needs to swiftly react to incoming obstacles and other interactive elements to collect points and prevent the beetle from taking damage.

Thumper, © Drool LLC 2013–2019. Reproduced with permission from the developers
A screen shot from the video game Thumper
Source: Thumper, © Drool LLC 2013–2019. Reproduced with permission from the developers

Here are the results just published in the journal Timing and Time Perception: Participants who played the game in VR performed better (had higher scores) and had a stronger feeling of presence (a feeling of “being there”) than those who played in 2D. The VR technology is thus a powerful means to get people “into” the game. But Thumper was flow-inducing regardless of condition and the more flow participants experienced, the less they thought about time and the faster time passed subjectively. In addition, the total score obtained by players as an objective measure of game performance correlated with flow states, indicating that the more flow participants experienced, the better they played.

The state of flow elicited by games like Thumper might reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by accelerating the passage of time while also reducing self-rumination. Of course, these claims require further examination. That is the goal of our EU project. Together with our EU study partners, we are aiming to develop VR games and virtual environments that lead to the experience of an accelerated passage of time, which can improve the mood of the users through flow states.

References

Alvarez Igarzábal, F. (2019). Time and space in video games: a cognitive-formalist approach. Transcript.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Khoshnoud, S., Alvarez Igarzábal, F., & Wittmann, M. (2020). Peripheral-physiological and neural correlates of the flow experience while playing video games: a comprehensive review. PeerJ, 8, e10520.

Rutrecht, H., Wittmann, M., Khoshnoud, S., & Alvarez Igarzábal, F. (2021). Time speeds up during flow states: a study in virtual reality with the video game thumper. Timing & Time Perception https://doi.org/10.1163/22134468-bja10033

Vogel, D. H. V., Krämer, K., Schoofs, T., Kupke, C., & Vogeley, K. (2018). Disturbed experience of time in depression—evidence from content analysis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12 (66).

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