- Happiness and the dawn of virtual reality gaming.

Give your brain what it wants? I.e. flow: An exotic tribal vacation, a 3D VR action war game or the excitement of a new simulated paradise [1]? While the robots do all the work?

Definition: Flow is the mental state, in which a person (in an activity) is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus and full involvement.

The idea was first proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [2]. According to Csikszentmihalyi, people are most happy when they are in this state of flow (See Positive Psychology [3]). They are absorped in the activity at hand and the situation. It is a feeling everyone has at times. Temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored - and it is all about engagement and fulfillment. In the flow state, the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer are balanced. The task at hand is not too easy and not too difficult. But just right. In Csikszentmihalyi's words: ''It is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies.''

So, hopefuly, flow will be a normal work experience for most people in the 21st century.
There is one problem though - you might be able to achieve flow in activities that are morally repugnant.
Luckily, research shows that doing good things actually puts the mind in a happy state (best basis for doing more creative work). Doing bad things on the other hand, will put your mind in an unhappy state [3] .
Today - People play tennis, climb mountains, go on exotic holidays, or join the army for their dose of flow and happiness.
It is all about creating positive emotions, forgetting the ego and the concerns, worries and stress of ordinary western life.

Still, for a longterm happy life, human activities should be balanced between these 3 categories:
a) Hedonistic activities - Immediate (and short) pleasures, good food, sex etc.
b) Flow activities - Moments of energized focus and full involvement.
c) Meaningful activities - Creating a life with purpose and spirit.

Finding the right balance is of course difficult - and most people fall short in one or two categories.
Without c people tend to overcompensate by doing more in a and b.
Without a people might overcompensate by doing more in c.
In the future, surely, you might be able to put on a braincap [4] that will guide you towards the right balance. But somehow it must be difficult to have a full and meaningful life (c), if you are only a puppet controlled by a braincap?
Virtual reality technologies are probably more promising. Hedonistic moments and flow experiences within the safety of the virtual reality environment will soon be here [5]. From thereon it is only a small step to a future, where the game industry can see how a player moves around in the virtual worlds. And based on that, categorize the players spiritual level and decide what kind of experiences should be created (and forced upon?) the player for improved mental health and happiness (Category c experiences for the excitement/sport/travel/drug junkies and a experiences for the overly brainy people).

So, our future player might climb into the virtual reality gear to experience the flow of modern warfare, Then, in the middle of the action, the (government approved) game might come up with a surprise (in order to trigger category c improvements). A surprise that offers no escape routes...(Not control, just friendly pressure for your own good).
Indeed, we haven't seen anything yet ....

Or, well, we have actually seen a lot already. E.g. Modern Warfare 2 is on the store shelves, the reviews are flooding in, and they are more than positive. They are glowing. Tense game play and amazing graphics. Still, imagine gaming in 30 years time!

Actual gameplay from Modern Warfare 2 for PlayStation 3. July 2010.
What kind of games will we be playing in 2040?


Simon Laub

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Original page design - July 3rd 2010. Simon Laub - Aarhus, Denmark, Europe.