Apropos of my post on story being an emergent property of D&D, I want to tell you a bit about what I think is the point of playing D&D. A LOT of people say the point of RPG's in general is to create a story. Without the story there is nothing. This is wrong. Well, it may be part of what is going on but I don't think the "story first" believers have dug deep enough in their analysis. The point, really, is because I like it. You play because you like it. More to the point, we play because our brains like it. The navel gazing and theorizing about why we game and what makes a good game over the last forty years has mostly been bullshit as far as I'm concerned.
No one, to my knowledge, has addressed what seems to be the most fundamental element of what all of this is about. Something is happening inside the human brain which is pleasurable to us when we play D&D. That's the point or object of play. That is why we humans do anything at all. Some part of our brain chemistry and neuroanatomy gets a bump and we feel good. Unless your theorizing and philosophizing about games and the object of gaming addresses on some level what is going on inside the brain, then you are throwing darts and sometimes getting lucky.
I think that is what Dave and Gary did. They got lucky. They stumbled across a way of play that taps into, hacks if you will, the mechanisms of the human brain that are the most powerful tools of creativity human beings possess. What they found, without knowing it, was a way to induce what positive psychology calls a "flow state."
"Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields."
Components of Flow
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
- experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
So what does this mean?
What I think it means is that when D&D is at its best we are intensely focused on the game, we loose our real life identity for a bit and focus on what is happening to our characters almost as if it is happening to us. We forget to look at our clock and we enjoy the experience. Have you ever started playing one evening and the next thing you know the sun is coming up and you lost track of time? I have and its magic.
Below are a few vids about flow state. There are others and most of them suck. The first video is pretty short the other is longer and more involved getting into neurotransmitters, transient hypofrontality and all kinds of other stuff. He spends a lot of time talking about how flow is a powerful tool for learning and ultimate human performance. To me flow states are the closest thing I've found to describe my best D&D experiences. Maybe you'll get something out of reading about flow states and how they have made what seems impossible possible. Steven Kotler's book The Rise of Superman is accessible and available in print. It is what got me thinking about the possibility that the reason we love D&D is that it is a gateway to a complex and deep activation of the most powerful brain processes.
What's most exciting about it to me, is that researchers have identified stimuli that make entering a flow state more likely. Interestingly, many of those stimuli are found in old school DIY D&D and that will be the topic of future blog posts on the subject. Thanks for reading.