Flow is a mental state, not unlike a trance. You’ve probably experienced it in some shape or form either in games, in roleplay, or at work. Mihály Csikszentmihályi coined the term back in 1975 as a way to describe how the brain can reach a state where all of its mental processing ability is focused on a single task.
Consider for a moment what inputs your brain is dealing with right now. Do you have YouTube in another window? Are you stressed about homework, work, or even preparing an event? Are you sneakily reading this while you’re waiting for someone to pop out an emote? There’s more on that later.
We’re all pretty rubbish at multitasking. I’ll crib an exercise from this video to demonstrate. In your head, silently, try reciting the alphabet silently from A-Z, then count from 1-26.
You can probably do that pretty rapidly, and it probably isn’t very difficult for you either. Now try the same thing, but pair letters and numbers as you go. So, A1, B2, C3, etc. Go until the tenth pair.
When you're ready.
Different, right? If you tried it, you can probably work out why I asked you to do the whole alphabet on the first one, but less than half the second time. We’re bad at multitasking - really bad. In other words, the worst state for your mind to be in is one where it has to consider many things all at once. In fact, this can lead to a stress response, which takes control away from your human bits and puts your lizard brain in charge.
While your lizard brain is very good at keeping you alive, it’s pretty rubbish at doing anything else. We generally want to move towards the opposite end of the spectrum: low stress, high engagement, and handling one set of inputs and calculations at a time.
Flow is the optimum state for this, when your brain closes off all the gates leading to anxieties, your perception of time, and even minor alarm bells from your bodily functions (‘Ah crap, it’s midnight, I haven’t done my assignment, and I’m dying for a widdle.’) If that sounds familiar, you’ve experienced flow.
While this is a great thing to do for work (watch the video if you want to learn more about that) it also applies to roleplay pretty directly. Think of all those scenes that went on into the night because everyone was in the zone. When you promised yourself you’d be in bed an hour ago, or you suddenly realise you’re hungry because you forgot dinner.
Admittedly, this isn’t always a good thing, and if you want to learn more about the more negative side of things, you’ll want to look into hyperfocus… but I’m not your mother. If you want to get wrapped up in imaginary worlds for hours on end, as far as I’m concerned, you can go nuts.
This is the part of the article which makes you feel bad about yourself. That’s it. It’s over now. Relax. You can do your laundry tomorrow.
For roleplay, flow is important because it involves total concentration. We’ve all experienced difficulties characterising - you don’t when you’re in flow. Your brain is totally geared towards simulating a character. Even if you hit a roadblock, all that processing power will hop past it in short order. You might already know this as 'immersion', but it has a real impact on your brain.
That’s also important because it strips out the part of your mind which focuses on the OOC. When you’re in flow, you’re a better roleplayer, because you’re not thinking about what you want, your brain is giving you a vicarious experience through the character you’re simulating. There’s all sorts of philosophy of the self that could wedge its foot in at this point, but I’ll leave that to the people who roleplay Jedi. The point is, flow keeps your mind on the world of the IC.
Generally, it takes about twenty minutes to enter a state of flow. Your brain needs time to gear up to that. Unfortunately, it only takes a couple of minutes to break flow. You can get away with wandering off for a biscuit or a cup of tea as long as your mind stays on characterisation, but as soon as you open that YouTube video, the battle is lost. VoiP? No chance. Quick podcast or social media on the side? Sorry, no.
So if you are aiming for a state of flow, you’ve got some basic instructions: focus on the roleplay. Avoid distractions, whether they come from the real world, or your own screen. What about if the problem comes from within the scene, however? What if the person you’re roleplaying with takes three minutes to pop out each emote. Won’t that disrupt your flow?
Well, yes. Probably. Unless you invest time and effort into constantly considering the scene between emotes (difficult over any period of time) then delays between emotes are going to kill your flow. My experience is that anything over a minute starts to tangle with my concentration, and I start drifting towards YouTube.
There’s not a whole lot you can do about this. People have all kinds of different reasons for being slow to emote. Some have trouble typing. Others have trouble characterising. Some people, however, are so caught up in their own cycle of no-flow podcast listening/YouTube binging/voice chatting that they can ruin any chance for those they’re roleplaying with to enter a flow state.
Some people are themselves in a flow state, but their style of roleplay makes it impossible for anyone else to be. People who roleplay in long, carefully styled paragraphs (or paragraph groupings) are themselves often spending enough of their time characterising to stay in a flow state, while others in the scene have to wait out the time it takes them to get through those paragraphs.
Enjoying a flow state at the expense of others is a bit like meditating on someone’s face. It only works on the assumption that their nose is halfway up your arse.
As a disclaimer, I don’t think paragraphs are necessarily bad for roleplay, but if you’re taking any serious amount of time to spit one out, perhaps consider toning it down for the sake of pace and the engagement of others you’re sharing a scene with.
However, when everyone in a scene is allowed to enter a flow state, magical things happen. Character interactions become instinctive and bounce off each other. Scenes which would typically have enough content and conflict to last twenty minutes can snowball for hours and splinter into new plots and threads. Different people prefer different styles of scene, but for me a scene spurred on by group flow is the best experience in roleplay, when the characters just click and the group becomes a perpetual ideas machine.
That’s not to say that every roleplay session needs to fit in that groove. For a whole range of reasons, people might not want to engage that much all the time. If you’re not sure, the easiest guide to follow is the speed of the other person’s emotes. Just try to generally match their pace. It might mean cutting down a little on detail, or closing that compilation video you were watching, but it’s the considerate thing to do.
If you are interested in entering a flow state, here are some tips to get you going:
- Focus on dialogue over action.
- When describing action, keep it concise. Each emote doesn’t have to be unique. Reinforcing a character’s tics and habits can help you find that flow state.
- Use the time between emotes to think about things your character could say and do. Most of this will be made irrelevant in a moment, but it keeps you engaged.
- On a related note, pre-type a reply while you wait. Sometimes you can predict what a character will say and have the reply ready. If not, just start again. Either way, you’ve kept in flow.
- If you do have some kind of IM chat open, try to talk about the scene itself, or the characters involved. It’ll keep your brain geared for roleplay.
- If you like a soundtrack, finding the right music early might help with those first twenty minutes of getting into flow.
- If you have desktop notifications, or little bleeps and bloops from instant messenger applications, turn them off. These things are designed to pop you out of whatever you’re doing and distract your focus.
If you have a comment about how you’ve experienced flow in roleplay, or you have a story about how someone has broken your flow, pop it below.