Lately I’ve been reading Celia Pearce’s “Communities of Play” (2009). In her book, Pearce concerns herself with theorizing the concept of “communities of play” and many related concepts drawn from her ethnographic work around the Uru Diaspora. One the of the most interesting concepts so far is her idea of intersubjective flow, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow (1990) and DeKoven’s related concept of CoLiberation (1992). Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as a mental state achieved where the balance of challenge and abilities allows for a feeling of total engagement. Should the challenge outweigh one’s abilities the result is anxiety, in the opposite situation we see boredom. Both of these outcomes eventually lead to apathy, a state no game developer ever strives for. DeKoven later reexamined this idea and applied it to a more psychosocial realm, exchanging challenge and ability for isolation and conformity and theorizing an optimal state of CoLiberation, where players are able to navigate between being too individual or overly conforming, but rather can feel both a part of a larger community of players while maintaining a sense of individuality.
Pearce then attempts to combine these two concepts into one, intersubjective flow. She states that she places the flow state “between players rather than within the individual,” and thus out of the psychological realm into the social world. One of the key features to intersubjective flow that she mentions is its ability to accelerate the group dynamic that is particular to games where a group of players previously unknown to one another can form a relatively strong bond in a short time frame.
She refers in particular to an example of DeKoven’s involving a ping-pong game between two players of unequal skill where the more advanced player makes subtle changes to the play environment (such as playing wrong-handed) to maintain flow between the two players. This example reminded me of social psychologist Len Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding, which are primarily recognized now in educational contexts. Vygotsky theorized that educators could best assist skill development in learners by providing the bare-bone support needed to work through a more advanced concept. Related is the idea of the zone of proximal development, the set out skills that lie just outside those already mastered by the learner but which are within their ability to master.
To bring these two ideas together, I would point towards situations in MMOWs where more advanced players assist newcomers in understanding more advanced game concepts. This plays out in multiple ways. The first would be a situation more in line with DeKoven’s example where a player with more advanced skills somehow dampens their abilities, either through some kind of handicap or simply by not bringing to bear the full force of their skill, for the express purpose of building skill in another player. However, I think this concept is also involved in the grouping system seen in virtually all MMOG’s, where players form ad-hoc teams of 2-10 people, usually of similar level or ability, to accomplish a shared goal. The group system taps both into Czikszentmihalyi’s flow, as the addition of more players decreases the challenge to match the group’s ability, as well as DeKoven’s CoLiberation, for each player maintains an individual role while partially conforming to the group dynamic. With both happening together, Pearce’s intersubjective flow begins to be seen. The other example would be that in which experienced players walk less-experiences ones through a particular problem that needs to be overcome. This might include navigating a complex region, learning basic skills such as how to us complex but essential game functions, and even more social skills such as inducting a new member into nuanced social systems or role-playing circles.
Pearce believes that the “unconscious metagoal of achieving this intersubjective flow” is a main force behind the emergent behaviors seen in these play spaces. This seems to be true, however I would also posit that this concept gives rise to some interesting possibilities for examining social learning in shared virtual spaces. Indeed the subject of games and learning is popular in the field, and perhaps more concepts currently constrained to education could be brought to bear on these worlds where social learning is happening on a daily basis.