Do Speedrunners Experience Flow?

Stylized image of Mario backwards long-jumping within a flow band diagram

As the practice of speedrunning has gained popularity many have endeavoured to not only fit it neatly into the existing eSports landscape, but to draw comparisons to the larger world of sport. One concept that is common among sports commentary and game design jargon is “flow”, originally coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is said to be a state of “optimal experience” which exists “between boredom and anxiety”, and has been applied to numerous activities.

To some the question of whether speedrunners experience flow is a given. On YouTube the speedrunner Hummeldon “marvel[s] at how top runners reach a flow state that can only come from hours and hours of perfecting game mechanics”, situating flow as something which exclusively happens at top levels. Yet in an academic article partially on Super Mario Odyssey speedrunning Johnathan Hay states that in general “speedrunning must be considered a manifestation of the immersive cognitive state[…]flow”. Erik Kersting even uses the term begrudgingly to describe the “zen and focus” of speedrunning Celeste for a month before bed. I myself have been running Celeste regularly since April 2019, and while I am comparatively mediocre in the grand scheme of the 2000+ entrant speedrun.com leaderboard, I still have some thoughts on the subject.

Celeste itself is no stranger to flow arguments, even through a “casual” lens. Eerily similar articles by Spencer Everhart and Leah as well as a video by Game Score Fanfare all seem to argue that Celeste hits the sweet spot where skill and difficulty match. However in my view the problem with mapping the “flow band” graph onto something like a difficulty curve is that it assumes that the optimal experience is always the median experience. It would not be hard to misinterpret this graph and say that a linearly ramping difficulty is what’s ideal, when even within Celeste this is not the case, as there are moments such as the “Awake” section in Chapter 2 and the “Level Up” section in Chapter 6 which ratchet down the difficulty despite the player just having proven a greater degree of skill.

Besides, as Cameron Kunzelman notes in an episode of the Game Studies Study Buddies podcast, the original flow graph is presented not as an ideal zone but a feedback loop. Thus flow according to Csikszentmihalyi is not the absence of boredom and anxiety but a process which oscillates between the two. Applying this to speedrunning it becomes obvious that top level runners absolutely experience anxiety — but only contextually. Look at the ending of the current Celeste Any% world record by Buhbai: once he clears the final challenging flag his movement becomes ever so slightly sloppy as he only barely gets the coveted low 26 minute run (skipping over a 26:3x entirely by the way). Shortly after securing victory he tells his Twitch audience “I’m fucking shaking holy shit”. Elsewhere on the internet speedrunners are known to wear heart rate monitors specifically because of this WR anxiety phenomenon; could these instances really be said to be performing in flow? Yet ultimately it is not the optimality of flow which I take the most issue with, it’s the totality of focus required to achieve it.

While Flow the book was published in 1990, the ideas behind it date back to the early 1970’s, as seen in an article Csikszentmihalyi wrote with Stith Bennett in the American Anthropologist in 1971 entitled “An Exploratory Model of Play”. As it happens I used a quote from this article to open an essay about speedrunning which I wrote in 2018. The first half of the quote I had originally read in Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play — “Play is grounded in the concept of possibility” — but it’s the second half that I appended which now gives me pause: “Of all the possibilities for action that we perceive, only a few become ongoing projects: we can only do ‘one thing at a time’.” The quote’s utility in my essay had more to do with its resonances than its content, as I discuss the concepts of possibility space, play as exploration and games as models. Something about the phrase “one thing at a time” also seemed to resonate with the way I conceptualized possibility space as a database of game states accessed through play, as demonstrated through my case study, the infamous tool-assisted speedrunner pannenkoek2012. Yet put into its original context, I have to wonder, isn’t it markedly false that we can only do “one thing at a time”?

I first started listening to podcasts in the early 2010’s while doing assignments in art school. When school ended for the semester, I carried the practice over to runs of Spelunky on XBLA, but didn’t think much of the combination. Throughout the years I continued to listen to podcasts to fill idle time or accompany chores like folding laundry or doing dishes. When I started to speedrun Celeste it only seemed natural to do runs while listening to podcasts, and this is when it felt as though something had unlocked. While I have never felt anxious speedrunning Celeste unless I’m towards the end of a PB pace run, listening to podcasts definitely alleviated the boredom of engaging in a rote activity. I’m sure many who play games and listen to podcasts can relate, even taking speedrunning out of the equation.

However this sort of multi-tasking doesn’t seem to gel with Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow, where “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. Yet it is these types of distracted activities or “distractivities” that are the exact thing which Game Score Fanfare cites as an example of flow in the video above, namely the “lo-fi/chill hip hop beats to study to” genre of YouTube video. Top level speedrunners aren’t exempt here either, as I have witnessed many perform speedruns while providing commentary, reading and interacting with Twitch chat or even watching others speedrun in the background. It is my belief that while thinking of videogames as mere distractions (or part of a constellation of possible distractivities) goes against immersive rhetoric, it ultimately places them alongside other pastimes as perfectly valid experiences, which is important for something that can appear as trivial as playing the same game repeatedly. Looking at distractivities allows us to address how we cope with the mundanity of the everyday, whereas flow is so often fixated on the “elite” (though funnily if one takes the flow graph at face value it would logically have to include activities which are both low skill and low difficulty as being in the flow state).

Ironically though over time I found that at a certain point I had stopped listening to podcasts in order to enhance my speedrunning performance and was speedrunning in order to enhance my ability to focus on podcasts. Even when I see other runners describe themselves as experiencing flow there is this same sense of release of attentiveness: “I just sort of let my brain do the work and I’m not overthinking what I’m doing[…]letting your muscle memory and letting your natural instinct go, I would consider that a flow”. Yet a strange thing happened last year when I had a months long PB dry spell and switched to a different distractivity, watching GDQ in the background, and suddenly the slight attenuation of focus allowed me to better dial in my gameplay and finally PB. While there’s something about the lulls in conversation of a commentated speedrun that was less imposing than the theatre of the mind that is podcasting, it’s not as though that activity was any less distracting as there was now video playback in my peripheral vision. Nor is simply watching GDQ the key to always playing in the optimal headspace — for however rote a speedrun becomes there will always be a need for fast reaction and improvisation.

It’s this sort of ambiguous multivalency of consciousness that I feel that the conventional understanding of flow simply does not allow for. Ultimately whether speedrunners experience flow or not boils down to if one thinks flow even exists. As for myself, I’m skeptical, but I’ll keep on chasing faster times regardless.

FURTHER READING AND WATCHING

Why Do Speedrunners Hate Their Runs? By AverageTrey

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada