Learning about the theory of flow within our game theory classes we have been tasked with answering the question above. The question requires us to choose our favorite game and discuss it using the methods from Mahaly Csikszentmihalyi, Roger Caillois and Abraham Maslow. My chosen game is Bioshock, for many reasons, I have decided to discuss the game series as a whole as all of the games have reasonable links to these famous theories.

All three of these theories are quite different but yet still share some similarities; these theories are quite unnoticeable whilst playing the game as you start to engage in the state of flow, however, when thinking about each theory it is quite noticeable as you progress further in your chosen game. I believe that some games may not have some features such as vertigo and competition when speaking about the categories of play whereas when talking about the hierarchy of needs it is incredibly difficult to get to the self-actualization stage and only you can know for yourself when you have reached that stage. Also before I knew about flow theory I was unaware of what was keeping me so interested in certain games whereas I had less interest in others.

Flow Theory

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,

The quote above really helped me to understand flow theory as you look at the flow theory chart he made you can see that being in the state of flow is when we are truly happy. We are not happy when the challenge is too high as our anxiety becomes a problem and we then start to feel alert as well as stressed, we don’t like to be too skilled as we like a bit of a challenge so that we don’t become bored or depressed. Being in a state of flow is what keeps us interested in playing a game. When we become so immersed in a game that we ignore the world/reality around us. Mahaly Csikszentmihalyi is a pioneer of the scientific study of happiness; when he was younger he was intrigued by a lecture presented by a man by the name of Carl Jung, after World War II Csikszentmihalyi searched for the answer to how people managed to find happiness after the war and what causes happiness so he looked at religion, art and philosophy. When you are in a state of flow you engage with your creativity and you are completely focused on the activity present.

To test this state of flow Csikszentmihalyi used students as test subjects by giving them a beeping device; this device would beep randomly throughout the day and the student would have to record their current state, thoughts and feelings. He discovered that when students became mainly focused on one task they happened to be happy and in a state of flow, whereas when they had no activity and no one to speak to they became bored, relaxed or in a state of worry or anxiety.  This was named the Experience Sampling Study (also known as the beeper study). Csikszentmihalyi was a strong believer of our consciousness being a part of this theory; he thinks that if we learn to control our consciousness that we have more of a chance of being in a state of flow also he believes that power and judgements can have a negative impact on the state of flow. Many people react different to the state of flow; some people are almost always in a state of flow which can depend on religion and their way of life. Buddhism and Taoism are two religions in which feature being at peace and finding enlightenment (also known as being an ‘Autotelic Self’).

Placing Bioshock into the theory of flow chart is my opinion, other people may not enjoy the game for unknown reasons, however, I feel that flow is very opinionated because each person has their own game style and favour other games. I believe that Bioshock is along the top of the flow chart as I can be in a state of flow at times, however, I get very stressed at times because when playing the game on normal difficulty you have unlimited respawns but when you play it on the hardest difficulty you have to start the game again. Flow is dynamic and not static (the state of flow will change). The story is mainly what gets me into a state of flow as it is so mind-blowing and the characters are greatly interesting. Being in flow is amazing as I get to forget about the bad things that may have happened around me in reality and I get to be immersed in an amazing, interactive underwater city. Games that feature fantasy elements allow me to become so interested as it is something we don’t see every day and the environments are incredible to look at. When people get angry in reality they tend to smoke or drink whereas I can play Bioshock and virtually take out my stress by smoking and drinking for health/power and also killing enemies and completing questlines.

Below are some elements of flow from notice how they all fit perfectly into the Bioshock game (almost as if the game developers did it on purpose).

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way – The game has a slight free roam feature, however the quest lines guide you a lot and there is always a quest to keep you busy.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions – Once a quest is finished you will get a notification, achievement or story/character interaction.
  3. There is a balance between challenge and skills – Although the game can be quite difficult, having the chance to respawn so frequently gives the player hope and they can keep on trying.
  4. Action and awareness are merged – There are incredible amounts of action within the game and you have to be aware of what is going on so that you can understand the plot and enjoy the game.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness – I ignore reality when playing this game because I need the challenge and skill to be balanced I become completely focused.
  6. There is no worry of failure – I don’t worry about failure because I know I have a chance to respawn close by and maybe collect items I missed previously by respawning to a separate point.

Categories of Play

Roger Caillois has a theory which mentions four categories of play and two types of play. The two types of play are ‘Padia’ and ‘Ludus’; Padia means without rules and Ludus means with rules. To understand this you also have to understand the four categories of play which are ‘Agon’, ‘Alea’, ‘Illinx’ and ‘Mimicry’. Agon is all related to being competitive, over the years most games have been competitive as an example Pong was one of the first games released and trying to beat your friend at that was competitive enough. We play games to win and to be rewarded, as much as we do also play for fun we all would much rather appreciate a game that offers rewards as well as fun. Many game mechanics can make a game competitive such as levels, achievement, reward systems and cascading information. When I have a friend that plays the same game as me we will most likely have a discussion on what level we are currently at or how many achievements have we earned; even when playing a one player game that isn’t supposed to be competitive we still find a way to beat each other at it, such as Skyrim in which I always try to have better armor or weaponry compared to my friends. In my chosen game Bioshock you can go online and compete against other players from around the world in mini games that slightly relate to certain aspects of the game. I also use the difficulty settings as a way to be competitive as it is incredibly difficult on the hardest mode and currently nor me or my friends have completed it on any of the games from the series.

Alea isn’t featured in as many games however when it is in a game it is either really obvious or unnoticeable.  Alea means chance and that means the game will most probably be addictive. When a game features any sort of gambling we still become addicted so it is a great feature. An example would be lottery on Super Mario Party 8 or visiting the casino in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. My chosen game has chance elements when gathering supplies. When hacking vending machines or turrets you have small chances to hack successfully or gain a special bonus during the hack. You can increase the chance of getting a special bonus by enhancing your characters abilities throughout the game.

Illinx is disorientation, dizziness or illusions. I suppose you can talk about this in and out of game as now that we have virtual reality there has been many reports of it causing nausea and illness when played for too long. We also have 4D rides that make us feel like we are in that world. Within games we get many ways of being disorientated, drinking/drugs make the screen go blurry and the character is harder to control, blood on the screen when we are nearly dead can affect our gameplay therefore making our skills weaker in game and reality and even having crazy quest lines such as the Fallout 4 Nuka World expansion in which you can visit a funhouse. In the Bioshock game series I have been disorientated many times. In Bioshock 1 & 2 water pours from the outside in broken areas of the city (as the city is underwater) and when going through this water the screen goes incredibly blurry and the screen has a water effect so that it makes it difficult to see for 2-3 seconds which especially makes it difficult within combat. Bioshock Infinite however is set in a city based in the sky and when jumping from one building to another using a device called the skyhook the vision can become quite blurry because of the fast movement. The effect isn’t as bad in Bioshock Infinite as you can choose how fast to go whereas in the first two Bioshock games it is hard to avoid water at times.

When talking about mimicry within games it can be quite difficult as there is such a range of ways to use this category of play. We see mimicry of games in reality when we go to comic conventions or live action role play conventions as people like to cosplay as their favourite characters. Cosplaying is dressing up as your favourite character in real life, many people have different opinions on this as it can be strange to some extent, however if you really like that character and want to be immersed in a game even further then why not dress as someone you love. I previously cosplayed as Harley Quinn because she is a well-known character and she looks great as well as having such a fun-loving personality. I saw a girl at comic con dressed as a Bioshock character and I loved the outfit so I complimented it and we became friends all just because of the process of mimicry. Mimicry can occur during games, such as when you enter character creation and create someone you want to look like during the gameplay.

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is made up of five stages and these five stages are split into 3 groups in a pyramid diagram. ‘Physiological Needs’ and ‘Safety Needs’ are both in the Basic Needs group; physiological needs include the need for food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep etc. whereas safety needs explains itself with needing safety and security. ‘Belongingness and Love Needs’ and ‘Esteem Needs’ are in the group named physiological needs. Belongingness and Love Needs are social related whereas Esteem needs are senses of achievement and accomplishment. Finally there is the ‘Self-Actualization Need’ which is in its own group of Self-Fullfilment Needs; this stage is the hardest to reach as it is at the top of the pyramid and consists of gaining full knowledge on your given potential and you as a person.

This hierarchy of needs can relate to reality and in-game just like most of the other possible theories around flow.  When we are in a state of flow (in-game) we can be so immersed in the virtual world that we forget about our everyday life. Some cases around the world have led to malnourishment and lack of sleep due to being so immersed within gameplay that we forgot our own basic needs. When applying basic needs in game you think about your status bars, health, power and other elements such as sleep and weather make effect our playable character. When playing survival games we need to consider our basic needs as our character won’t survive without them. ‘The Long Dark’ is a game set in a cold environment in which the player has to consider how cold the character is as well as focusing on food, water and sleep. ‘The Forest’ game makes the player empty their backpack contents on the ground so they feel more vulnerable towards the enemies when wanting to look at the inventory. My chosen game ‘Bioshock’ has health items and pickups to help the player throughout the game.  The player collects ADAM which is a form of power that can then be spent at a Gatherer’s Garden vending machine, also money can be collected to spend at normal vending machines and consumables are collected throughout the game such as cigarettes, bandages and potato crisps to increase the players health and power.

When playing Bioshock my safety needs are at a high standard. I hack as many robots and turrets as possible to help me survive longer and be my security. Even when a Big Daddy is in the room I know that if a splicer hits him by accident he can kill them for me (a Big Daddy won’t attack me unless I harm him or a little sister). Also when playing the first Bioshock I enjoy having Atlas as my company throughout the beginning of the game just as much as when I play Bioshock Infinite and I have the company of the amazing character Elizabeth who will help to keep me safe as she will throw me first aid kits, salts and ammo when needed. As well as protagonists helping me I also have characters that are nor protagonists or antagonists such as the Big Daddy or Songbird. They will choose to help me depending on how I treat them and how the storyline/ quest falls into place. This then links to belongingness and love needs as the characters are amazingly placed and presented. Elizabeth was one of the first characters to use surround sound, when Elizabeth is behind you it sounds like she is behind you and when she is far away you can’t hear her as much compared to when she is stood right next to you therefore making the character feel even more interactive and making us more immersed in the game. Also making us believe that Big Daddy and Songbird are the antagonists however it turns out that they just seem to be trying to help us or protect others.

Esteem Needs, I feel like I have accomplished the game once it is over. The game is so mind blowing that when you complete it you have to take a deep breath and think about the plot in more detail and depth. I feel a sense of achievement when finishing the game because I can earn a good or bad ending, obviously my aim is to earn the good ending and I then look forward to the game developers possibly making another game. I like earning achievements on this game, even though some can be quite tricky but I am mainly focused on finishing the story and helping the characters that need help to be free. Little sisters and Elizabeth want their freedom and when you complete the game and win their freedom you feel happy.

I am unsure to whether I have reached the full self-actualization, however I feel like I might have touched upon it slightly, when I fully level up a character by the end of a game and feel more confident than I did at the start, that is when I feel I have reached self-actualization. Unlocking all of the achievements and completing the game makes me feel successful and gives me confidence in reality as well because when I first started playing Bioshock I struggled incredibly but the more and more I played it then made me better at first person shooters.


In conclusion I believe that the theories brought forward have such an impact within the gaming world/environment. It was incredibly interesting to learn about and throughout this essay I have definitely been in a state of flow. Although there are other theories that link well with my chosen game I believe these three theorists have so much knowledge on achieving happiness and enlightenment as well as making us aware of the elements that can decrease or affect our state of flow.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs taught me to keep track of my own needs as well as my in game characters needs, Caillois helped me to understand the four categories of play and how they can keep us immersed or interested in a game and Csikszentmihalyi taught me the theory of flow and how much depth you can go into when talking or even experience such a subject.


Images and References



And my edit via photoshop




Man, Play and Games – Rodger Caillois

Csikszentmihali, M 2002 Flow