January 12, 2017 / Esther Choy

What Video Games Teach Us About Storytelling and Flow Psychology “I only usually stop when my iPad runs out of battery.” That’s what one woman said about her habit of playing Candy Crush Saga. When she picks her son up from school, she says, she doesn’t give him a hug until she’s reached the next level of the game. Other Candy Crush devotees find that, over the course of a few months, they easily spend hundreds of dollars on extra “lives” just to keep playing the game. Do you ever wish people could be just as absorbed in your next business presentation? That just for half an hour, everyone in the audience would feel like they’ve lost track of time? Is this completely unrealistic? Not if you help your audience enter a “flow state.”

Flow state is the frame of mind that makes gamers lose track of time, and that many people experience while doing something they love—whether competing in a sport, playing an instrument, designing a new product or reading a good book. The flow state makes us so totally engrossed in the task at hand that we feel our “existence is temporarily suspended,” says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. By understanding how video games entice us, leaders can harness the power of the flow state for business communication. And storytelling is what will help us create that flow state. So how do you create this state of total immersion for your audience?

1. Create a world the audience sees as “real.”

“Well, duh,” you might be thinking. My story really did happen. And maybe it even happened in a setting that’s completely familiar to your audience: a break room, an office, or the deli your department tends to flock to.

That’s helpful. Gamers find that when environments come from settings they’ve seen depicted before—say, the wild West or a World War II battlefield— they can fill in the blanks “without being pulled out of the world to think about it,” as psychologist and video game consultant Jamie Madigan puts it.

Even when the environment is familiar, game designers recommend including “multiple channels of sensory information” to make players feel like they’re immersed in that imagined world. It’s the same with business storytelling. You don’t have to give pages of flowery description. But does the break room smell like coffee? Can you hear the hum of the vending machine? If so, we’ve just stepped into your world.

2. Keep them in that world.

Now that your audience has stepped into your world, don’t let anything jar them out of it. For video games, says Jamie Madigan, this is “anything that reminds you that ‘Yo, this is A VIDEO GAME.’”

For business presentations, mentioning the budget will wake the audience up to the fact that “oh, yes, this is a business presentation.” Likewise, mentioning a timeline—especially when the deliverable is due earlier than the team expects—will jolt everyone back to reality.

When you need to mention budget and timeline (as, inevitably, you will), know that you will be issuing a wakeup call that is going to interrupt the flow state. Save these wakeup calls for the end, as you move from story to plan of action.

3. Make them work.

Think about the last video game you played. Whether it was Candy Crush, Call of Duty, or even if you have to dust off your memories of The Legend of Zelda or Tetris, you probably remember what happened when you were playing the game and a friend asked you a question.

The “GAME OVER” screen flashed before your eyes before you even thought of your reply. This need for intense focus is what creates the flow state.

In a video game, you’re working to keep up with what’s happening on screen. You’re working to figure out how to stay alive, how to beat this level and move to the next. Likewise, you want your audience to be working with you to think about how the story is going to develop.

With a story, the challenge is not to stay alive or make it to the next level but to think alongside the storyteller and anticipate how the conflict will resolve.

4. Keep them guessing.

“Part of what makes games addictive,” writes N.L. in The Economist, is “requiring an unpredictable number of actions in order to earn a reward. Giving one at regular intervals means that a player, having received a reward, will be less motivated to play on.”

Spend some time analyzing your audience. What do they need? Why have they signed up for your session or been invited (or forced) to attend this meeting? What do they want to know? Intrigue your audience from the get-go. Then give them the information or resolution they seek just a little bit at a time. Give them crumbs.

Curiosity really is that powerful. A recent study showed that university students would switch from using the elevator to using the stairs if they saw a trivia question posted by the elevator along with a promise that the answer was in the stairwell.

“People really have a need for closure when something has piqued their curiosity,” says study co-author Evan Polman, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They want the information that fills the curiosity gap, and they will go to great lengths to get it.”

Satisfying your audience’s curiosity is one of the best rewards you can offer whenever you need to give a presentation. Rewards are what keep 42% of Americans playing video games for at least three hours a week, and they are what will keep your audience in that “flow state,” blocking out all else as you deliver the important message you have for them.


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My new book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by AMACOM BOOKS) will be available for pre-ordering in February 2017.

Photo credit: Ian Hughes via creativecommons.org.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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