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That Time J.R.R. Tolkien Wrote A Short Story About Video Games

Essay

Back in the late ‘30s, J.R.R. Tolkien (that guy who wrote a few books about a ring or something) wrote a short story called Leaf by Niggle. I was unfamiliar with it until last week, when our managing editor sent it my way for reasons that will soon become apparent. Leaf by Niggle is a curious, poignant little tale of an unremarkable man struggling to complete a painting. Before his work is complete, he is forced to go on a journey — more plainly, he dies. The story is a big bundle of allegories on spirituality and creativity, but the thing that most captured my attention was Tolkien’s take on the afterlife. Heaven, for Niggle, is not a place of laid-back bliss, but rather one of constantly scaling challenges, neither too easy nor too punishing. Once all the challenges in one area have been completed, Niggle moves on to the next stage. By the end of the story, Niggle is blissfully content to continue ever onward, always pushing himself to learn, accomplish, and complete new things.

This, in a nutshell, is the concept of flow. It’s one of the core tenets of game design.

Flow was identified in the 1960s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written several books on the subject. To sum it up briefly, flow describes a mental state of energized joy elicited by focusing on an activity. It’s not a lazy sense of enjoyment, like what you might feel while watching a sunset or lying in a hot bath. Flow is a very active state, something that is defined by a sense of accomplishment. It’s considered to be one of the most positive states the human mind can find itself in, but getting there requires a delicate balance. If a challenge is too easy, you’ll quickly get bored. If it’s too hard, you’ll feel stressed or frustrated. Flow is the sweet spot in the middle. In order to reach flow, you have to feel that you are being consistently pushed to the edge of your abilities, but in such a way that you still feel confident about the task at hand. Ideally, this is also paired with instant feedback on your progress so that you can adjust your actions accordingly.

In other words: Learn a skill. Beat the boss. Level up.

Experiencing flow is essentially why gamers game. Doesn’t matter if you prefer strategy games or platformers or RPGs, the feeling is exactly the same. When we talk about a game being well-balanced or deeply immersive or satisfyingly challenging, we’re saying that game knows how to maintain flow. Humor me for a moment and think of one of your favorite moments in a game — not a narrative scene or an artistic environment, but something you did. Chances are, that memory is of successfully completing a boss fight, or of finally crafting a rare weapon, or of clearing a grueling map with your friends. Easy games are forgettable. The moments that stick with us are the ones that were hard won, things that required experimentation and patience. I had a experience like this just the other night, when I unlocked the Good Soul achievement (spoilers) in Deus Ex: Human Revolution with a handful of tranquilizer darts and a single grenade. It was difficult, and I suffered countless defeats before I got it right, but giving up never crossed my mind. The challenge was far too fun.

One of the many things I love about Leaf by Niggle is that Tolkien perfectly encapsulated the ingredients for flow. It’s as if he wrote a road map, and it’s one that anyone well-acquainted with games will instantly find familiar. There’s even a part where Niggle encounters someone he knew in his old village, and upon realizing that they both have skills that the other needs, they become friends by working together. Games, too, have the power to forge friendships, and they are often most fun when shared. My buddy Chimp and I, for example, bonded after he was assigned to be my off-tank’s dedicated healer in a 25-man WoW instance about six years ago. We’ve been good friends ever since.

The fact that Tolkien managed to outline the basic structure of a form of entertainment that wouldn’t exist for decades (unintentionally, of course; the story is first and foremost a spiritual exploration) shows me that this pattern of challenge and reward is something that we are intrinsically wired to respond to. It’s always been there for us to tap into. I think that’s what makes video games truly special. There are lots of different ways to experience flow — sports, crafts, cooking, just about anything that requires you to take an active role. I often flow when I’m writing, for which I can blame my tendency to forget to eat lunch (one of the hallmarks of flow is an altered sense of time; Csikszentmihalyi’s original research was focused on artists who would skip eating or sleeping in order to keep working). But games are different. To my knowledge, there’s no other activity intentionally built around achieving flow. That we have such an activity at all is a wonderful thing. By definition, flow keeps our brains engaged. It brings about happiness through critical thinking and learning. But flow’s hard to come by in our everyday lives. Tolkien hit on this as well; the first chunk of the story involves all of the ordinary distractions that keep getting in the way of Niggle being able to finish his painting. Errands to run, neighbors to deal with, sick days to get through. That’s a reality we all can relate to, even for those who aren’t artists or creators of some sort. Making time for flow is tricky. Niggle had to die in order to get there unhindered. I’d love to be able to wander through the mountains like Niggle did (without the dying part, preferably), but since I still have to pay my bills and make my deadlines, I’m glad that I have a hobby that allows me to easily find flow in the few free hours I have at the end of the day.

I’m reminded of an interview with game designer Kim Swift that appeared on Wired last month, shortly after Quantum Conundrum came out:

All games are toys, she said on the phone, not because they are fun but because they allow adults to use their imaginations.

“They allow us to be a kid again,” Swift said. “What’s great about games in particular is that it’s a socially acceptable way for adults to imagine.”

Take for example a fantasy that has you as a big, burly weapons expert. You run through buildings gunning down bad guys, saving the day and becoming a hero. “If you start telling all your coworkers that you just imagined that, they’d think you were certifiable,” Swift says with a laugh.

But turn that fantasy into a video game and the same scenario becomes socially acceptable. Immersing yourself in that fantasy is no longer weird or immature. The social stigma is gone. With her games, Swift wants to encourage grown-ups to use their imaginations and play with toys.

Society at large has this weird, stupid idea that play is something only kids are supposed to do. The very phrase playing games implies a lack of sophistication and hard work. But as Swift touched on, the heart of play is not fun, but thinking. And as Tolkien seems to have understood, life is most satisfying when it requires a lot of brainpower. I see this as one of the most beneficial things about games, the way that they have bottled the ability to transport us to places of wonder and discovery. This is why I almost always choose gaming over watching movies or TV. Not that the latter options don’t fuel my imagination, too, but I usually prefer being a participant, rather than a passive member of the audience. I like solving puzzles and choosing story paths and unearthing new concepts of perception. Like Niggle, I don’t want to just sit back and imagine a tree. I want a part in creating it. Tolkien may have been writing about the afterlife, but he touched on something very true about existence as we know it. That feeling you get from thinking your way through unending challenges, from walking “always uphill,” as he put it — it’s a little piece of heaven.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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