Social Flow and Collaboration in Gameful Design

June 27, 2011

Courtesy of wetwebwork photostream

In Social Flow in Gameful Design I made the point that social flow contrasts to Csikszentmihalyi’s original concept of individual, or solitary flow, in which a person’s engagement in actions is optimal when they lose a sense of time and awareness of self in an intrisincally rewarding feeling of accomplishment. Social flow implies a qualitatively different order of the flow experience, a group-level experience. To that extent, gameful designs that take social flow into consideration incorporate a different set of design principles to those involved in what most people currently refer to as gamification.

In a similar vein, Simon Wiscombe recently observed , “Gamification is inherently flawed because it focuses on rewarding players for the end-state.” He adds that designs that gamify are best when they focus on the journey rather than the outcome, especially if the aim is to evoke the voluntary, ongoing engagement of participants. I emphasize the importance of voluntary experience because if you can’t quit playing when you want to the experience is not a gameful one. Recent social psychological research supports Simon’s point.

Walker recently offered a series of relevant social psychological studies on social flow:

Flow in a social context may be a qualitatively different phenomenon than flow experienced in isolation. Classic research in social psychology has amply demonstrated that people act, think, and feel qualitatively differently within a group than by themselves…Social contexts introduce additional variables that may inhibit, facilitate, or transform flow experiences. Social contexts can be enormously complex. They range from ‘mere presence’ situations where individuals perform in the midst of passive others…, to co-active situations where people perform side-by-side but do not interact, to highly interdependent interactive situations where people must cooperate and coordinate their performances within established groups…In highly interdependent situations, people may serve as agents of flow for each other. This form of social flow is mutual and reciprocal, a form that is likely to be qualitatively different than solitary flow (my emphasis). In mere presence and some co-active social situations, a form of solitary flow is probable because the unit of performance is the individual, however when the unit of performance is a group, especially a team that must do tasks requiring interdependence and cooperation, social flow should be more likely. Social flow should be easily seen in highly cohesive teams in which there is agreement on goals, procedures, roles, and patterns of interpersonal relations and the competency of team members is uniformly high… (see original text for references, my emphasis added).

The main thing to note from Walker’s research is that it confirms Csikszentmihalyi’s point (p. 158) that flow experiences occur most frequently in work settings, yet qualifies it by noting that “social flow is more joyful than solitary flow.” Moreover,  interactive situations compared to co-active ones scored highest in social flow in Walker’s research.

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