When the science fiction film Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman, came out in 2014, WIRED called it “the best videogame you can’t play.” The film’s main character, Bill Cage, repeats the same day again and again—a day of futuristic combat with aliens. Each time he dies, Cage wakes up again on the previous day. Everything is as before, with the crucial difference that he remembers all the previous versions of that fatal next day. The repetitions are the film’s equivalent of a videogame’s replayability, and Cage’s battle skills improve, just as a player’s skills improve through replay. But Cage is not a player. He is a character in a narrative film, so the repeated days are in fact consecutive scenes in the film and thus take on a cumulative meaning. They tell a continuous story in which Cage gradually struggles to overcome the alien enemy and break out of the time loop. The film has a traditional narrative arc in which a relationship develops between the male and female leads as they fight the aliens together. In the final scene, with the alien threat defeated, Cage smiles. He has transcended replay, and the film can now resolve itself in typical Hollywood fashion. Film’s sense of an ending triumphs over the videogame.
This is how Edge of Tomorrow illustrates a tension in contemporary media culture. Hollywood still offers catharsis, as it has for decades, but it is both intrigued and concerned that videogames offer something else, a different aesthetic experience with its own strong appeal. Films like Edge of Tomorrow may appeal to some gamers, but it is clear that there are millions of players who prefer the mechanics of the videogame to the narrative, cathartic power of film. The WIRED reviewer says of the romantic plot in Edge of Tomorrow: “the romantic subplot is probably necessary just because, you know, people like having feelings at movies, but still feels tacked on.” In fact, that romance is crucial to the emotional structure of Edge of Tomorrow as a Hollywood film.
Videogames’ economic importance is obvious. In 2015, revenues for videogames sales totaled $23.5 billion, and there are large communities of players whose media universe centers on videogames, not film or television. In the 20th century, film promoted itself as the preeminent popular medium, but the eroding of hierarchies now applies to film as it did earlier to the traditional elite arts. Film can no longer claim to perform a function for our whole culture when there is no whole. When Golden Age Hollywood promised to tell the story of our culture, it was usually the story of a cultural mainstream. Now it is even clearer that Hollywood’s promise is meaningful only to one, admittedly still large, audience in the plenitude.
New audiences, also in the millions, seek their cultural centers elsewhere—in videogames and social media. One of the principal pleasures offered by both videogames and social media is the experience of flow. Flow is an aesthetic principle for first-person shooter games, for platform games, for puzzle games. It is also the state induced by watching one YouTube video or Netflix episode after another or by monitoring Facebook feeds for hours on end. As early as the 1970s, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi applied the term “flow” to describe a particular state that he had identified in his subjects: “I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Csikszentmihalyi’s flow can be evoked by activities common to many ages and cultures. He liked to cite rock climbing or tennis as examples—vigorous physical activities in which the participants lose track of time, fully engaged in the work of the moment. But he also argued that his flow state has something in common with forms of meditation or religious experience.
Still, many experiences go beyond Csikszentmihalyi’s definition. His definition of “flow” requires concentration: when you are climbing a rock face, you had better be fully focused on that task. For Csikszentmihalyi, listening in a focused way to someone playing the piano can induce flow, but playing the piano is a stronger flow experience. Our media culture today offers a variety of passive experiences that share a key characteristic with Csikszentmihalyi’s flow: the pleasure of losing oneself. The pleasure may be intense or muted. Playing a videogame can demand as much focus as playing the piano. Other digital media, like earlier media, demand less concentration. Watching YouTube videos one after another is like spending the evening watching sitcoms on a conventional TV set. Whether active or passive, all flow experiences simply … flow. They offer the viewer, player, or participant not only pleasure in the moment, but also the seductive possibility that the moment might go on indefinitely.
The game designer and evangelist Jane McGonigal believes that in order to solve global social and political problems we should all be playing more videogames. In her TED talk “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” she shows an image of a gamer who is about to achieve an “epic win.” The photo captures, she explains, “a classic games emotion … [a] sense of urgency, a little bit of fear, but intense concentration, deep, deep focus on tackling a really difficult problem.” She claims that this intense concentration in a game can be harnessed for social change by turning real-world problems into collective online games. Whether we agree with her that videogames can change the world, McGonigal and many other writers on games are clearly right about the intensity of engagement that games can generate among dedicated players. It is the sense engagement that Csikszentmihalyi identified as flow.
Although videogames have a much shorter history than film, they have certainly developed as much diversity in the past 30 years. Genres (each with player bases in the millions or tens of millions) include: puzzle games, platform games, role-playing games, first-person shooters, and several others. If the classic way to enjoy a film is to sit in a darkened hall with an audience around you, absorbed in the light show on the large screen, the classic way to engage with a videogame is still to sit alone in front of a screen with your controller or keyboard. As digital writers constantly remind us, videogames are interactive, which means that through her participation, the player is subsumed into the procedural circuit of the game. In a first-person shooter, such as the Halo games or Half-Life 2, the player falls into a consistent frame of mind for relatively long periods, as she moves through each level and engages and kills enemies. A game may offer some pauses along the way, for example, with noninteractive, cinematic cutscenes; such scenes are felt as breaks in the flow that is the principal attraction in playing. But elaborate, nearly photorealistic shooters are certainly not the only games that pursue the aesthetic of flow. Platformer games (such as the Super Mario Brothers series) and puzzle games (Tetris, Bejeweled) also insert their players into a potentially endless event loop.
Although flow is by no means a new form of experience, our current media culture pursues the aesthetics of flow with particular enthusiasm. Videogames today enjoy an economic and cultural status far beyond that of traditional games or forms of play, and they are no longer a pastime only for adolescent boys. Some genres—for example, online “casual” games—are popular among women. They account for about 70 percent of the players of matching games like Tetris. In fact, 31 percent of all gamers are women, and the average age of women players is 37. Furthermore, game studies is now a recognized academic discipline with programs in major universities in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Videogames have also become “serious”: they are used in education and training, in the communication of health issues, and in politics for propaganda and for motivational purposes.
Videogames show us how digital media in general lend themselves easily to flow. For flow experiences often depend on repetitive actions, which contribute to the feeling of engagement and absorption that Csikszentmihalyi describes, and videogames—like all interactive computer interfaces, indeed like virtually all computer programs—operate on the principle of repetition. The user becomes part of the event loop that drives the action: her inputs to the controller, mouse, or keyboard are processed each time the computer executes the loop and are displayed as actions on the screen. The user not only experiences flow, she actually becomes part of the program’s flow. This is true, if in different ways, for applications throughout digital culture, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
The most prominent and popular social media platforms appeal to their hundreds of millions of users in part through the mechanism of flow. The stereotype, which contains some grain of truth, is that flow culture is youth culture. Young people spend their days immersed in flows of text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, and streaming music, while older adults prefer to experience their media one at a time. For example, a Pew Research survey from 2012 showed that almost half of all adults between ages 18 and 34 use Twitter, whereas only 13 percent of adults over age 55 do. The younger you are, the more likely you are to multitask: those born after 1980 do so more than Generation X, which does so much more than the baby boomers.
Each of the genres of social media provides a different flow experience. YouTube, for example, remediates television and video for the World Wide Web. A typical YouTube session begins with one video, which the user may have found through searching or as a link sent to her. The page that displays that video contains links to others, established through various associations: the same subject, the same contributor, a similar theme, and so on. Channel surfing on traditional television can be addictive, but the content of one channel tends to have little to do with that of the next. YouTube’s lists of links and its invitation to search for new videos give the viewer’s experience more continuity, with the opportunity to watch an endless series of close variants.
Like other microblogging sites, Twitter offers each user a personalized stream of short messages from all the posters that the user has chosen to follow—including personal friends, celebrities, news organizations, companies, and nonprofits. If she follows enough sources, her stream of messages will change as fast as she can refresh her screen. As with YouTube, but far more easily, she can contribute to the conversation by “retweeting” the messages of others or writing her own. The resulting stream is an unpredictable combination of public and private communication. Twitter interleaves the messages from all the sources so that there is no coherence between consecutive messages and no need for the process ever to end. Those trained in traditional rhetorical practices may find the individual tweets and the whole stream almost meaningless. But for Twitter regulars, the rhythm of short texts is satisfying in its own right.
Multimedia microblogs such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat privilege images and audio, and each platform offers a subtly different version of flow. Snapchat enforces a staccato rhythm by making its photo messages, “snaps,” necessarily ephemeral. The stated purpose is to encourage playfulness among senders and recipients and to counteract the tendency to treat social media services as a permanent record of your online identity. It might seem that Snapchat enables you to lose yourself in the moment without having to regret the next day the selfie that you took in that moment, but it is possible for the recipient to make and save a screenshot. You may lose yourself in the social media plenitude, but others can almost always find you.
Take note of the fact that social media as flow experiences are therapeutic, helping an individual to negotiate her relationship to her social world. Csikszentmihalyi himself ascribed a therapeutic value to flow experiences. He suggested that in a secular and often hostile world, flow gives individuals a feeling of control in their own smaller domains (games, hobbies, work activities). Flow becomes “the process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” Csikszentmihalyi’s flow culture is one in which individuals aim at nothing higher than personal satisfaction. The psychology of flow does not encourage them to think of themselves as actors in a larger social or political drama. At least from 1800 to the end of the 20th century, politically aware citizens were encouraged to see their own history as marked by the same dramatic curve as that of their state or nation. Flow culture does not endorse such a view. Instead, the identity constructed on Facebook and YouTube is static or homeostatic: its modest goal is to keep itself within bounds, within the channels provided by a Facebook page.
Adapted from The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media by Jay David Bolter (The MIT Press, 2019).
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