Immediately after getting home from school, my teenage sons would get on their computers and play World of Warcraft with an intensity and skill not observed in any of their academic or sports endeavors. This drove my wife crazy. "You should be doing homework! Why are you playing this game?" she said one day.
They ignored her. They not only didn't hear her, they seemed unaware she existed.
"I know why they are doing it," I said. "They are in flow."
"Flow? That sounds way too California New Age for me," she scoffed, cursing computers in general. "It wasn't like this when I was a kid."
Actually, for me it was exactly the same when I was my sons' age, but without the computer. When I came home from high school in the late 1960s, I'd get on 20 meters and run stations contest style with my drifty, barefoot Eico 753. There was a window when all the Europeans were turning on their rigs after dinner, but North Americans hadn't come home from work yet. I found that "NAME HR IS BROOKE BROOKE" was as boring for me to send as it was for the other op to copy. But if I handed out honest signal reports at 30 WPM, I could generate a pileup from operators who, like me, couldn't care less about names, because call signs were way cooler. We only wanted to know how loud we were, and if we could beat the other guy.
I always knew I was addicted to contesting, but only recently, after I began studying game design, did I learn why. It all has to do with flow. Mastering flow is the secret to mastering everything, because flow is all about mastery. Flow is the most addictive, non-chemically induced mental state known to man. Game designers know all about keeping you in flow, and they are so good at it that their industry considers flow addiction a major ethical issue.
Wikipedia says, "Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the processof the activity." Yup, that's it. Sunday morning, the sun comes up, 20 opens, and the 10 minute rate meter tops 180. It doesn't matter that you have the flu and your haven't slept in two days. Life is good.
How do you get into flow? According to Wikipedia, you can't force yourself to enter flow. It just happens. You can enter a flow state while engaged in any activity, although, the online reference concludes, "it is most likely to occur when one is whole-heartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes."
By definition games such as radio contests might look like a lot of work, but they are played only for intrinsic purposes. If it isn't fun, it isn't a game. The playwright/composer/actor Noel Coward understood this, because he loved writing. As he once put it, "It is funny how work is more fun than fun."
Even though my wife has a ham license (she's N2GSG), radio contests look too much like work to her. But she is a writer and, like Coward, she's spent plenty of time in flow. She is just unfamiliar with the word.
Game designers know that to get into a flow state you must be engaged in an activity where your skill and challenge are matched. If the challenge is too easy, you become bored; if it is too hard, you become stressed. The region where challenge and skill meet is call the "flow channel," and good games keep you "in the zone" nearly all the time. As you begin to master a skill, rather than let you get bored, you are presented with a "level-up" in the form of greater challenges.
Some stress is good, but if there is too much, you will quit, so the ideal level-up puts you in a region called "eustress" - just beyond your current skill level, but where mastery is in sight and you feel energized, but not threatened.
I'll start the CQ World Wide CW on 20 meters, because I haven't sent code in 6 months and need to go easy before I level up to the bedlam on 40. Eventually, I feel in control and then can relax into S&Ping on 80 and 160. By the wee hours, though, I'm getting bored. Then the sun comes up, and I have to be everywhere at once, and that is one level-up after another - and just in the nick of time, or you'd find me asleep at the desk. Later in the day the risk is that I'll feel too comfortable on a well-defended run frequency, and I won't push myself to change bands as often as I should.
For the complete version of this article as published in the NCJ, view the pdf version.