The addictive power of first-person shooters

What is it that has made this type of game such a success? It’s not simply the first-person perspective, the three-dimensionality, the violence, or the escape. These are features of many video games today. But the first-person shooter combines them in a distinct way: a virtual environment that maximizes a player’s potential to attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—a condition of absolute presence and happiness.

“Flow,” writes Csikszentmihalyi, “is the kind of feeling after which one nostalgically says: ‘that was fun,’ or ‘that was enjoyable.’ ” Put another way, it’s when the rest of the world simply falls away. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is mostly likely to occur during play, whether it’s a gambling bout, a chess match, or a hike in the mountains. Attaining it requires a good match between someone’s skills and the challenges that she faces, an environment where personal identity becomes subsumed in the game and the player attains a strong feeling of control. Flow eventually becomes self-reinforcing: the feeling itself inspires you to keep returning to the activity that caused it.

As it turns out, first-person shooters create precisely this type of absorbing experience. “Video games are essentially about decision-making,” Lennart Nacke, the director of the Games and Media Entertainment Research Laboratory at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, told me. “First-person shooters put these tasks on speed. What might be a very simple decision if you have all the time in the world becomes much more attractive and complex when you have to do it split second.” The more realistic the game becomes—technological advances have made the original Doom seem quaint compared with newer war simulators, like the Call of Duty and the Battlefield series—the easier it is to lose your own identity in it.

It isn’t just the first-person experience that helps to create flow; it’s also the shooting. “This deviation from our regular life, the visceral situations we don’t normally have,” Nacke says, “make first-person shooters particularly compelling.” It’s not that we necessarily want to be violent in real life; rather, it’s that we have pent-up emotions and impulses that need to be vented. “If you look at it in terms of our evolution, most of us have office jobs. We’re in front of the computer all day. We don’t have to go out and fight a tiger or a bear to find our dinner. But it’s still hardwired in humans. Our brain craves this kind of interaction, our brain wants to be stimulated. We miss this adrenaline-generating decision-making.”

Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the potent grip of first-person shooters. More than casual games which are about problem solving, first-person shooters generate an engagement flow that act on the mind like a drug. That sense of complete control over your environment grants the player a feeling of God-like ability, and damn does it feel good.

More than that, it might be good for you.

Far from isolating us in a virtual world of violence and gore, first-person shooters can create a sense of community and solidarity that some people may be unable to find in their day-to-day lives—and a sense of effectiveness and control that may, in turn, spill over into non-virtual life. In 2009, the psychologist Leonard Reinecke discovered that video games were a surprisingly effective way to combat stress, fatigue, and depression—this proved true for many of the same titles that critics once worried would be isolating, and would negative impact on individual well-being and on society as a whole. In other words, the success of Doom and the games that have followed in its footsteps haven’t sentenced us to a world of violence. On the contrary: for all of their virtual gore, they may, ironically, hold one possible road map for a happier, more fulfilling and more engaged way of life.

I've felt flow most powerfully in a few situations. One is playing videogames, and now that I think about it, they all were first-person shooters. Another is playing non-video games, like poker or blackjack or mah joong, regardless of whether at a casino or at home. Lots of frequent decisions, very immediate feedback on the results. And lastly, it's when I'm editing either video or photos, but especially video as you close in on that final cut that just works. Closing in on final cut feels like you're racing towards solving a mystery, it must be what Sherlock Holmes feels as a mystery unravels into a coherent narrative in his mind.

When I'm in flow, I don't feel tired, I lose all track of time, and I feel as if I could continue indefinitely. Usually it's only the physical discomfort of sitting for such a long period of time that ultimately forces a stop. Is it possible to harness flow in more parts of our life, or are those too devoid of that constant stream of decisions which we fully control?