Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Christian Haines reviews Against Flow

Braxton Soderman. Against Flow: Video Games and the Flowing Subject (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021). 328 pp.

Review by Christian Haines

16 March 2022

Flow is a benchmark in the games industry. It’s a measure of how successfully a game absorbs player attention. It involves a balance between challenge and skill, an experience difficult enough to be exciting but not so difficult as to cause anxiety. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist responsible for conceptualizing the experience, describes flow as more than a pleasurable experience. It’s a way of life, a cure for social alienation, a means of personal growth. From an idealistic standpoint, the goal of achieving flow in games doesn’t simply lead to fun; it turns games into a kind of therapy through which a person comes to realize their innermost potential.

It’s this ideology of flow that Braxton Soderman criticizes in his book Against Flow: Video Games and the Flowing Subject. Flow is an ideology because its explanation of the world encourages specific kinds of action with social and political consequences. Soderman points out that Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow was meant as an alternative to the more socially minded perspective of socialism. Whereas the latter emphasizes the need for systemic social change, flow suggests that an individual can fix their own problems by getting absorbed in pleasurable activity. In its most grandiose visions, flow promises to turn work into play, to convert the drudgery of everyday routines into meaningful activity. Revolution is beside the point when the world’s become a playground.

Soderman criticizes the game industry’s emphasis on flow for two main reasons. First, in offering to solve players’ problems through play, flow distracts and diverts social energies into individual pursuits. In a discussion of indie-game darling Celeste, Soderman explains that the game’s emphasis on self-care and self-help reinforces the dominant belief that the suffering of an individual can always be resolved through the efforts of the individual: “Celeste suggests that players view their selves as the source of success, no matter the amount of previous failure. The game even keeps track of how many times players die, but it tells them, ‘Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!’” (p. 86). Celeste may have been rightly praised for how it turns platforming challenges into an allegory for personal growth, but Soderman argues that that’s precisely the problem: it focuses attention on the symptoms of alienation—the suffering, not the underlying injury—and suggests that the best we can do is “cope” (p. 91).

The other reason Soderman criticizes flow has to do with our current historical moment. Along with critics like Mackenzie Wark and Patrick Jagoda, Soderman argues that contemporary society has been gamified, meaning that capitalism has adopted elements of games in an effort to make work and consumption resemble play. Playfulness and flow have become valuable feelings not just in our free time but also at work, especially in the so-called creative industries. At the extreme, the creative destruction of entrepreneurs as they seek out new markets is itself a playful activity: “Entrepreneurs disrupt the status quo, appropriate situations in inventive ways, and salivate over new, untapped markets as playgrounds for potential profit” (p. 179). In this “situation of total play,” the value of play seems to unravel. Play is just another kind of labor—unpaid labor (p. 191).

Soderman’s work belongs to a rich tradition of critical theory that doesn’t hesitate to condemn capitalist society as a whole. Still, the stringency of this critique does raise the question of what’s left for games to do in a situation of total play? Can games do more than reinforce the status quo? Soderman offers a tentative yes, suggesting two possibilities. The first is the avant-garde method of disruption and estrangement. Soderman examines indie games like The Stanley Parable, This is The Only Level and Phone Story that eschew the pursuit of flow in favor of calling attention to gaming’s complicity in our broken social systems. A game like Phone Story—Molleindustria’s ludic exposé of Apple’s exploitative labor practices—“resists flow and seeks to channel the desire for flow outside the game toward community organizing” (p. 202).

The other possibility Soderman suggests is more speculative: What would a critical version of flow look like? It would have to involve “imagining different architectures for flow” or different game design practices that bring together social criticism, activism, and gameplay (p. 225). Critical flow would have to include an awareness of the social conditions of gaming: Who gets to be a gamer? What kinds of society do games enable us to imagine? How do they reckon with political problems? Critical flow would also need to energize the transformation of the status quo; it would need to foster the practical hope that another (nonvirtual) world is possible. This is Soderman’s dialectical gambit: that play might not be played out because it still promises not just another kind of experience but another system.