Writing Is Not a Game

A new app called Flowstate promises to make writing easier. But it ultimately suggests that we’re approaching the process all wrong.


Flowstate is advertised as “the most dangerous app.”

Screenshot via FlowState

In a recent conversation with a friend, I found myself marveling over the output of another journalist we both admire. It wasn’t just the uniform brilliance of her articles that impressed us, but that she manages to write so many of them. “I think,” my friend hazarded, “that she just doesn’t hesitate.”

It’s hard for me to imagine writing without hesitation—in fact, it’s hard for me to compose a single sentence without doubt or dread. Now, however, there’s an app that promises to show us the way, freeing us from everyday fears by forcing us to just write.

Called Flowstate and advertised as “the most dangerous app,” it’s minimalist in both styling and functionality: The cleanly designed official iOS version costs $9.99, but you can try a similar program in your browser for free. On booting it up, you first select an amount of time you’d like to spend working. It then gives you a blank screen and invites you to begin typing. If you stop for more than a few seconds during your writing time, the text begins to fade from the screen. Wait even a little longer (you have about five seconds in all), and those words—however many you’ve produced and however long you’ve been at it—vanish for good, never to return. Like an immediate demonstration of bit rot, it amplifies the surprising fragility of our endlessly extended digital memories.

Though Flowstate is intended to keep you on task, it obviously threatens to make its users less productive, since much of what you write in it inevitably disappears. If you want anything to show for your efforts, you’ll likely have to re-create much of what you write after losing it to the app’s bugs or to your own dithering. That means you may end up making multiple passes at the same hasty rough draft, and that you’ll do so without the evidence of previous efforts to guide you. For some writers—including the many Slate staffers who declined to try it out—that’s probably enough to skip installing the app. But Flowstate’s real problems have to do with its assumptions about how we write.

In the Verge, Nick Statt writes that Caleb Slain, one of the app’s developers, “wants you to think of each timed writing session in Flowstate as a personal contest to overcome.” The app attempts to re-create the collective competition that develops during a classroom free writing exercise. Significantly, it does so by introducing a failure state that forces you to start over every time you “lose,” encouraging you to repeatedly throw yourself at whatever’s in the way, much as you might while mastering a Super Mario Bros. level.

It took me three tries to complete the early draft of one paragraph while using a browser-native variant of Flowstate. The first time, I lost my text a few minutes in, not because I hesitated but because I kept excising text after writing it, unaware that the program didn’t recognize “delete” as a true keystroke. On my next attempt, I was interrupted 76 words in by the knocking of a FedEx carrier, losing my work to an unavoidable distraction. Only on my third attempt did I make it through the paragraph. Left with 200 clumsy words cobbled from the fragments of my earlier, vanished efforts, I still had the feeling that my princess was in another castle.

As Statt notes, however, the most gamelike qualities of Flowstate derive from the idea of “flow,” a concept that’s achieved purchase in game design theory. According to Jenova Chen, creator of the acclaimed game Journey, “flow” describes a state in which players can find a comfortable balance between situational difficulties and their own capacities, proceeding fluidly but encountering sufficient challenges that they feel like active participants in the action. In her new book, How Games Move Us, Katherine Isbister writes that this principle has helped designers move beyond a too-simple emphasis on fun toward a more sophisticated understanding of what makes us truly engage with a product.

Though Flowstate’s developers nod toward similar research, their app may not actually encourage the condition that its title suggests. Describing their “philosophy,” Flowstate’s designers write that the app “is a response to the amphetaminic digital age, born out of ancient writing disciplines.” Apart from alluding to “a state of mind known as the ‘action of inaction,’ or ‘doing without doing,’ ” they don’t go into detail about the specifics of those “ancient writing disciplines.” That may be because the method they’re actually proposing is strikingly modern.

This is an app that seems troublingly suited for a world that too often emphasizes timeliness and self-assertion over thoughtfulness and care. In Flowstate, it’s hard, for example, to check your sources. If I’d clicked out to confirm references, I would have lost the sentences I’d been banging out. Apps like this one assume that you already have everything in your head, leaving no room for either further reflection or even the most basic research. It’s an attitude that informs much of what we read today, an attitude that makes it all too easy to slip into plagiarism or to uncritically parrot received wisdom.

Here you’ll respond that Flowstate is designed as a drafting tool, one that’s meant to encourage creativity by quashing distractions and doubt. That’s true to a point, but like Flowstate, our “amphetaminic digital” moment favors pure productivity and tends to overlook any issues that arise in the process of promoting that ideal. In this regard, it’s indicative of other productivity tricks and tools, such as Slack, which is supposed to smooth over our interactions with co-workers, but ends up turning the whole world into an office. It likewise resembles sleep trackers, which turn rest itself into a task. These programs—and others like them—seek to allay our work-related guilt while reaffirming the structural conditions that make us guilty in the first place.

Flowstate doesn’t break us free from our social obsession with speed so much as it tries to make our dread a little more delightful. Gamifying such a condition is like dipping vanilla ice cream in magic shell: It coats our culture of panic in a thin layer of chocolate, helping us ignore the banal reality beneath but doing nothing to improve it. So yes, Flowstate may be good as a free writing tool, but goading yourself on with the danger of a game over is ultimately just going to undermine the process, not make it easier. If anything, we need programs that persuade us to write more slowly—or, at least, a world that would follow their cues.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.