‘Flow’ and Board Games

by May 11, 2021Olaf's Corner0 comments

Time is a strange thing…

Einstein theorized that it is relative and, speaking for myself, this has never been truer than during the last year. Somehow the perception of time has been distorted in a way that recent events seem like forever ago, while something that happened years before somehow feels like it happened just last week. Strange times indeed.

On a daily basis, this pandemic-induced ebb and flow of moments and hours can throw us for a loop. Somehow an hour can appear to linger forever, while we simultaneously ask ourselves ‘where did all the time go’? For me, this is partly caused by a lack of familiar structures and routines that I spent a lifetime developing. As a result, it has become harder and harder for me to truly experience ‘the now’; To be fully immersed in an activity, be it work or recreation. It has become a challenge for me to be lost in the moment – where I forget the world around me while being enthralled in an activity or thought. To truly be present with my mind and focus – not resting in the past or the future but in this very instant of time.

But even without the added social complications of continued lockdowns we continuously struggle to hold on to our temporary experiences. After all, we live in an age where social media or other forms of digital entertainment encourage us to remove ourselves from our own present existence. Be it through a friend’s post or a click on the ‘find out more’ button. Even while writing this column, I am constantly tempted to check my emails or to read up on the news. Something could be happening somewhere in this world that might be more interesting than what I am doing at this very moment. But don’t worry, I decided to mentally stay with you for a while longer.

The concept of ‘being more present in the now’ is not a new idea in psychology. Mindfulness practices have become popular tools for many, be it through meditation, yoga or other mental exercises. All of these methods try to engage us fully with our current experiences. Their aim is to separate us from habitual responses, like mindlessly watching TV or surfing Facebook, and to emerge us more into the current moment. We are so here, so engaged with what is currently happening, that we forget that we are actually separate from it. That experience is also often referred to as flow. The term flow was first coined in the 1970s by psychologist Dr. Mihaly Chentmihalyi while he was studying why people would give up material goods for the elusive experience of performing enjoyable acts. He focused on what it meant to be ‘in the zone’ as opposed to ‘being zoned out.’ He himself described flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follow inevitably from the previous one, like playing Jazz.’

There are many ways to describe flow, but ultimately one can distill the experience into the following core elements:

  • Concentration is focused and grounded in the present moment.
  • Action and awareness are merged
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • One’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • An experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

In theory, these all sound like wonderful states of mind. In practise they can provide a deep satisfaction with a present moment. I am sure we have all been there: We are so lost in an activity (usually an enjoyable one) that we forget what time it is. Before we knew it, hours have passed, and we didn’t even notice. We were truly absorbed by the now.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could produce this experience on demand? I believe that board games can a perfect starting point for flow. By default, playing a good game checks all the basics: They encourage us to focus on the present moment, they make us forget about ourselves and they reward us with a built-in experience. I would even go one step further and say that most games are created in order for us to experience flow. That is their whole point. They help us to focus our minds on the strategies at hand, or on the faces of the people we are playing with (focus in the present moment), and last but not least they provide fun (intrinsically rewarding). In addition, most board game enthusiasts will probably tell you that they don’t really care if they win or lose. They just enjoy playing – which brings us full circle to Chentmihalyi’s notion of doing an activity for its own sake.

We all have a part of our brain that is dedicated to self-awareness and thoughts about ourselves. That part can be particularly strong in circumstances of boredom, stress, worry or anxiety. On the flip side, it can be quieted when we concentrate on a task. I can’t think of a better way to ground myself in the present moment than by pondering my next move during an enjoyable game with friends or family.

Usually, I end this column with some suggestions of specific games I recommend. This time I encourage you to pick up any game and to simply enjoy the experience for the sake of the experience. 

As they say: ‘Time flies when you are having fun.’

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