Epic Life: Immersion and Flow, 1

It’s officially summer, on my calendar at least, and so I’m going to change my format to something a little lazier. Shorter posts, more questions, fewer “I argue in this post”s and “as I demonstrated”s.

What is the relationship of immersion to flow?

By flow, I mean of course Cziksentmihalyian flow. There are a great many critics of games who take it for granted that “immersion” and “flow” are two terms for the same thing: a participant’s complete absorption in an activity. With regard to games and, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear me say, aesthetic experience more generally, we can call it the absorption of the player in the ruleset.

After reading me (as I’m sure you did) describe immersion as the experience of having a fictional world replace the player’s real world, through identification with a ruleset, you also probably won’t be surprised to read me now declaring that while flow clearly has an important part to play in the function of immersion, immersion and flow are different experiences, and that my analysis suggests that it is possible to experience immersion without experiencing flow, and (note the important distinction coming up here) to experience flow without the immersive, fictional dimension of the experience being obvious, or even useful to talk about.

So the wonderful, classic example of knitting. (Yes, I know that wasn’t a complete sentence. When I do up the academic version, the sentence will magically develop a verb; I promise.)

Knitting has a ruleset, I’m sure you’ll agree: to make a scarf, the knitter is constrained in the choices s/he makes with his/her needles and yarn. The knitter experiences absorption, and a limited awareness of the “real world.”

(Knitting actually poses a significant problem to the idea of the flow “channel,” where difficulty increases over time, because expert knitters maintain absorption even after they’ve mastered the craft entirely; but Csiksentmihalyian flow, on my reading, doesn’t actually depend on the idea of increasing difficulty.)

But the ruleset of knitting is not a humanistic ruleset, and thus the immersive component of the experience of knitting is not determinative, or worth describing in humanistic terms. The ruleset of knitting is not humanistic because its narrative varies so little.

That’s where I’m putting my marker, for the next two weeks. Feel free to tell me that I’m wrong.

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