Have you ever experienced a time when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you forgot about your physical feelings and the passage of time? This highly-rewarding mental state is known as flow, and it is studied and characterized by a renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I had the great pleasure of hearing Prof. Csikszentmihalyi himself speak on this topic at the Persuasive2009 conference. The talk was enlightening and made me understand why I sometimes forgot to eat or sleep when deeply absorbed in solving a problem.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an optimal state that can be attained when the challenges we encounter are matched to our ability. When the task is slightly too easy (or too hard) we fall out of flow and go into a state where we feel in control (or aroused if the task is slightly too hard). When the task difficulty greatly exceeds our skills, we are likely to experience anxiety. And if the task challenges do not come close to our ability, we will often experience boredom (see figure).
As illustrated by the figure, this also implies that when we are in a state of control or relaxation, we simply have to challenge ourselves and pick a more difficult task to get back into flow. However, if we picked a task that is too hard, we must learn and increase our skills gradually in order to move back into flow. Therefore, we learn the most when we are in the arousal state.
Picking a task that is just challenging enough for us to move into the flow state is not easy because the tasks we encounter do not have a continuous range of difficulty. Moreover, the exact level of challenge for a task is difficult to gauge. In an attempt to challenge ourselves, we often pick a task that is too hard and go into a state of anxiety. This is why many people like to stay in the comfort zone of control and relaxation and do not like to challenge themselves. Consequently, flow is not a common mental state.
Although flow is not common, Prof. Csikszentmihalyi has mentioned that they are more prevalent in creative professionals, such as artists, composers, poets, scientists, mathematicians, etc... This is because these professions require much self-challenge to create something novel and original. Due to the distinctive gaming heritage of Lithium, we know another group of people who often experience flow. Can you guess? Yes, they are the gamers. If you know friends who are into gaming, or if you have teenage children who are addicted to computer games, you will know what I am talking about. They will play tirelessly for hours, if not days, straight.
So what is it about video games that enable people to move into flow so easily? Actually, games in general (not limited to video games) can create an artificial environment where the task difficulty is well-controlled and increase gradually. This makes it much easier for gamers to pick a just-challenging-enough game to move them into flow (B2 in figure). Even if a gamer accidentally chose something too difficult, it would most likely not be something totally beyond his skill. So, they would experience arousal (B3) rather than anxiety or worry (B4), which is undesirable. In the arousal state, gamers only have to learn a little bit to increase their skills sufficiently to move back into flow (C). This will in turn encourage gamers to take on more challenges. This feedback dynamic is what makes so many gamers addicted to playing their favorite games.
As a practitioner of this theory, Lithium knew all along that the reason a superuser would spend 8 hours online answering questions is precisely the same reason that a gamer would play for days without sleeping. In fact, the Lithium platform is built upon our deep understanding of various gaming and social dynamics. The control--arousal--flow dynamic is just one of many that are deeply ingrained in our rich and flexible reputation engine. This is the reason we are able to attract and keep those superusers who will spend many hours on our communities. Moreover, because flow is inherently a rewarding and desirable mental state, superusers are often happy to volunteer their time and effort. To them, it's just like playing a game.
Despite my personal rediscovery of the connection between flow, gamers, and superuers, I must clarify that I am not claiming that a superuser answering questions online is necessarily experiencing flow. Whether superusers truly experience flow is a research question that can only be addressed via the scientific method. I was just inspired by Csikszentmihalyi and wanted to share the spark in my mind.
Having discussed the relationship between flow, gamers, and superusers, next time we will apply the theory of flow to help us design the optimal ranking structure that engages the superusers. Stay tuned at mich8elwu.