For one of my classes, I have to do a blog post weekly based on some reading we are assigned. We had the option to set up a blog on wordpress.com for this purpose, but since I already have a blog, I might as well use it! Plus, I get some motivation to draw comics that accompany my blog post responses, so at the very least, maybe it will make grading a bit more interesting for the TA.

This week, we were assigned to read chapters 3 and 4 of “The Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “Why We Play Games” by Nicole Lazzaro of XEO Design.

While reading Csikszentmihalyi’s description of what flow is, my mind immediately thought of a particular game I played a lot in my freshman and sophomore years of college — Knytt Stories. Knytt Stories is by an independent developer, Nifflas, who is known for his non-linear puzzle platformers that provide amazing atmosphere and ambience, despite fairly simple graphics (the awesome background music for his games is probably a factor in this). Knytt Stories is no exception.

From the moment I first tried playing it, I was hooked — the controls were simple and intuitive, so that I really felt that I was one with the main character (a little wall-climbing creature named Juni). She did what I did, I did what she did, and as a result I felt frustration, fear, and triumph as I played through the levels. Also, one of the major aspects of the Knytt Stories game is its environment. While playing through the puzzle levels, you may stumble across a part of the level that is no obstacle, but offers no progress, so that you wonder, “why is this part of the level here?” Instead, you might see a little animation — a creature walking into its house, a flower blooming from the ground, a bird preening itself on a branch. The Knytt Stories world is not always practical, and the player is left with a sense of wonder even as he completes a level. Often, there are in fact many different ways to “beat” the level. In this way, Knytt Stories provides a world that invites exploration, both spatially and with respect to decisions. The world could be immersive and aimless if I wanted to be, or, I could return the rules at will and continue in my quest for completing the level.

Knytt Stories screenshot

A screenshot from a Knytt Stories level.

Though I was “busy” with schoolwork and extracurricular activities, I still found time to play this game. In fact, the only reason I stopped playing Knytt Stories was because I ran out of levels to play (though, there is a new expansion pack out that may start me on the path to addiction… again). The in-game environment itself was so immersive that I could play even while friends were playing console games or watching TV in the same room, or while knowing that I had an assignment due later in the week. The little world’s incompleteness, whimsicality, and simplicity had the power to command my attention — ┬ánot just while I was playing the game, but also during other times of day (characterized by thoughts of how to beat the next level, or even simply when planning out when I would play the game next).

Though Lazzaro does not explicitly talk about The Flow in her abstract, it seems to me that people play games because it is a flow activity for them; the description by Lazzaro of how people play games contains the elements of enjoyment laid out by Csikszentmihalyi (challenge, merging of action of awareness, clear goals and clear feedback, concentration on the current task, a sense of control, a loss of consciousness of self, and the transformation of time). Therefore, as Lazzaro says, people play games “not so much for the game itself as for the experience the game creates”. The game offers a challenge from which we can emerge triumphant, more skilled, and with better self esteem. It offers rules and a world that we can understand and feel in control of, and allows us (just like a good book!) to go places we would not normally be able to go and do and see things we would not normally be able to do and see.