Flow is a game (or structured like one)

Kevin Votaw
4 min readMay 22, 2022


Photo by Andrey Metelev on Unsplash

There is a biologically built-in framework that gets us through failure and into flow, and that structure is games. Before that, a look at flow, its benefits, and its underlying structure in connection and comparison to games.

The basics of flow

Flow, the phenomenon and state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, has been called the source code of intrinsic motivation (37–38).

The knowns of flow are well-documented: in flow, we perform, produce, and create at exponential levels (39); those with the most flow in their lives rate highest in life satisfaction (40); flow is the “more” we seek to the estimated tune of four trillion dollars that is the Altered States Economy (41); and finally, flow is the driver behind peak experience athletically (42).

Flow is, among other things, universal and ubiquitous (43). Anyone can access it — provided certain conditions are met.

Called “flow triggers”, flow has a distinct set of traits no matter the domain (44). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow and identified the phenomenological conditions underlying flow, which was later expanded upon for groups by Keith Sawyer in Group Genius and compiled neatly by Steven Kotler in Rise of Superman.

Because of their trailblazing, meeting the requirements of flow can now be reverse engineered, intentionally crafted versus accidentally achieved. Curiously, games draw uncanny parallels to flow and vice versa.

“Games,” Csikszentmihalyi said, “are an obvious source of flow and play is the flow experience par excellence” (45).

What is under the hood of games and how does it structure experience literally and emotionally?

The structure of games versus flow

The solution obvious to Csikszentmihalyi is to design our work, our athletics, like a game. Games follow a predictable pattern.

Jane McGonigal, game researcher, suggests there are four defining traits of a game: a goal, rules, feedback system, and voluntary participation (46).

In a nutshell, “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” philosopher Bernard Suits noted (47).

Now, compare Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of flow, Kotler’s psychological triggers, and McGonigal’s defining traits of a game (48–50):


  • Complete concentration on a task
  • Clarity of goals, reward, and immediate feedback
  • Transformation of time
  • Intrinsically rewarding experience
  • Effortless and ease
  • Balance between challenge and skills
  • Action and awareness merge
  • Feeling of control


  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Intensely focused attention
  • Challenge/skills ratio


  • Goal
  • Rules
  • Feedback system
  • Voluntary participation

By default, games offer a remarkably similar set of traits structurally to flow, but they also have distinct advantages psychologically and emotionally.

The benefits of a gameful mindset

The power of games as the penultimate example of the autotelic ideal cannot be understated. Games fracture the alleged paradox of failure in that (51):

  1. We generally avoid failure.
  2. We experience failure when playing games.
  3. We seek out games although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

Games frame failure unlike anything else because unlike real life, in a game failure is okay and not at all distressing.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s “magic circle” of a game suggests that games have special rules, rules different outside a game where resistance and failure are expected, challenge is welcome, and if we fail, the game is stupid (“It’s just a game!”) — not us (52).

The roots go deep as play is central to humanity, a free activity that is ‘not serious’ and outside ‘ordinary’ life (53–54). Games allow us, as reversal theory posits, to move and “reverse” from external goals to intrinsic goals for their own sake (55).

The paradox remains.

Why else would one play a game like Tetris where you’re guaranteed to lose eventually?

Because as McGonigal says, “Games after all, are quintessential autotelic activity,” which gives us the four things we care about the most: satisfying work, the hope and experience of being successful, social connection, and meaning (56).

Not only do games give a foundation with which to craft a flow experience, but the key intrinsic drivers underpinning positive psychology: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (57).

Though the scope of game research and Jane’s own words in Reality is Broken and Superbetter on why games make us better and how to live gamefully is beyond the scope of this paper, a few highlights include:

  • Framing exercise as fun (scenic walk versus exercise walk) allowed people to lose more weight and reward themselves with food less (58)
  • The frame “Playing a math game” versus “taking a math test” caused the latter to procrastinate 60% longer than the participants preparing to play a game, who jumped right in to get better (58)
  • One of the most important findings in video game history is that gamers spend nearly 80% of their time failing, but consider it “fun failure” because it makes them paradoxically excited, interested, and optimistic (59)
  • Playing and training with friends and family in a game boosts enjoyment 53.6% (60)
  • Games offer epic contexts, environments, and projects that contribute to a larger meaning and entity, so much so that the Halo 3 community set and met the 10 billion Covenant kills goal (61–62).

The point is that games allow us to fail, failure gets us into flow, and flow brings out the best in us.

Flow, then is a game, and should be structured like one.

References to the above can be found here.



Kevin Votaw

Flow Coach. Applying flow in school, sports, and life: ❌ Flow x Fiero ♦️North of Happy ⚾ The Pitching DJ 🧠