Why has the hobo lifestyle been such a rewarding experience? It was
new. When did it begin to lose it’s luster? Right about the time we
got really good at being hobos. Why is our present “boring rest
period” intrinsically rewarding? It’s been a long time since we
experienced it, so we’re not very good. Once we gain that optimum
level of post-flow state mastery, we’ll be ready to go back to
exciting nomadic adventures.
In From Chocolate to Morphine Dr. Weil says that altering consciousness is a fundamental human need & drive. Whether that's through drugs, exercise, meditation, scary near-death experiences, or simply spinning in a circle.
A quote from Mr. Flow himself:
"Flow also happens when a person's skills are fully involved in
overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a
magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges,"
Csíkszentmihályi explains. "If challenges are too low, one gets back
to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can
return to the flow state by learning new skills."
One fact that fascinates me about "flow" is that the challenge must be "just about manageable" — the Goldilocks level of difficulty, not too hard, not too easy.
I think that well-crafted games hover around the maxima of challenge vs. player's ability, feeling competent or almost competent is enough to keep a player engaged and happy.
VVVVVV did this supremely well. The game is hard, but the cost of dying is small, usually just going back to the start of the current screen. One of the design principles was "no artificially gated progress" — the only thing holding back the player is the player's skill. The game is presented as a series of areas that require mastery of different skills, each area made up of multiple interlinked screens of challenges. There are checkpoints before every tricky jump. The only consequence of failing a jump is warping back to the last checkpoint, right back at the start of the jump. And so you try the jump over and over and over again, and eventually pass. No going back to the start of the level, no running out of lives, so the player can focus only on getting better at the game.