Flowing Through History

When I was a child I played a tonne of Civilization IV on my father’s computer. I was enamoured with the god-like feeling the game gave me. Taming the wilderness, shaping it to my desires and growing my empire. It was a very addictive game, one that held me for hundreds of hours. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was Civilization IV‘s superb flow that made it such an addictive and empowering experience.

In his writing, Csikszentmihalyi cites Roger Caillois’ categories of games. One of these is mimicry, the imitation, or rather simulation in a video game, of real life. Civilization IV is an incredible simulation of all life, from the beginning of time to well into the future. Csikszentmihalyi states that mimicry is so immersive and engaging because it “makes us feel as though we are more than what we actually are” (1997). Civilization IV made me feel like I was so much more than my short time on this Earth. It made me feel like I was in control of so much more than I actually am in my day to day life. That’s where the thrill and the enjoyment came from.014techs

This enjoyment of mimicry is compounded by the game’s excellent flow of difficulty and complexity throughout the game. Growing my humble village into a vast, sprawling empire didn’t happen overnight. It occurs gradually over hundreds of turns where new mechanics are added slowly and thoughtfully to keep me from becoming too bored. But these new features aren’t added so fast that they overwhelm me and begin to frustrate me. They’re added at just the right intervals to keep the game fun and challenging for the whole game. From religions to diplomacy to setting off for new continents, there was always something new to tackle with the skills I already had, and to develop new ones. Different difficulties also allow the player to replay dozens of times, honing their skills and allowing them to progress towards the “deity” setting that is the ultimate challenge.

Different Flows for Different Folks

Csikszentmihalyi states that different people are more likely to achieve flow in an experience than others. This is because we are all different mentally. Some people lack the muscular precision and reaction time to be good at competitive shooters while others lack the foresight and strategic capabilities to succeed at long play games like Chess or Fire Emblem. One of the reasons I believe that I am able to achieve flow while playing Civilization IV is that I am naturally more inclined to play the long game, to build out a strategy over time think about things. This is exactly the type of approach a player needs to have to succeed at Civilization IV and one reason it clicked so well with me.

That said I know people who are inherently good at twitch based shooters like Halo or Counter Strike who have a tough time enjoying Civilization IV and can’t get into that zone needed to achieve flow. Csikszentmihalyi cites research from Dr Jean Hamilton where she explains that people with different levels of intrinsic motivation take longer to solve certain problems. People who lack a basic intrinsic motivation need more external cues to be successful. These external cues could be in-game tutorials or out of game strategy guides. Both of these resources would detract from that player’s ability to achieve flow as their constantly needed to detach from the experience to understand how to proceed.

Changing My History

After reading Csikszentmihalyi’s explanation of flow I definitely believe that I enjoyed Civilization IV more because I was able to achieve flow while playing. Because of the type of player I am who enjoys long, thoughtful gameplay experiences I was bale to engage with Civilization IV more than other types of experiences. Cvilization IV is carefully designed to engage players like myself by slowly adding complexity and difficulty gradually over the course of a six hour game. And then outside the game it has several difficulty levels to start new games on a higher difficulty to creat an almost meta flow for your entire time playing Civilzation IV, you think about the game even when you’re not playing it. And that’s the mark of a truly well designed, flowing experience.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: Basic, 1997. Print.

Published by Stephan N. Reilly

Freelance writer and designer.

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