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In this blog, I will combine specific game cases to explain the phenomenon of "flow" and its positive psychological theory behind it, and how game designers could introduce it better to support players' gaming experience.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

July 12, 2023

8 Min Read

Have you ever been fully immersed in a game, forgetting about hunger and time? Have you ever felt fulfilled and satisfied after finishing all the levels and stories? If so, congratulations! You have successfully entered a state of flow during the gameplay. And various magical psychological principles and phenomena, such as "flow theory", have long been closely related to the video game industry, and have rich applications. In this blog, I will combine specific game cases to explain the phenomenon of "flow" and its positive psychological theory behind it, and how game designers could introduce it better to support players' gaming experience.

1. A bit more about positive psychology

The core of positive psychology research is to make life valuable and meaningful. As a psychology discipline, it examines assumptions about what can improve our lives betther. Its research paradigm is no different from traditional psychology theories, except that the focus of study is different. Some traditional psychology researches "what problems arise in human psychology" and tries to find ways to make them less painful. However, the goal of positive psychology is to make ordinary life more fulfilling. It focuses on people's strengths and explores what makes life happier and more joyful.

Positive psychology is an important supplement to traditional psychology, focusing on the well-being of all humanity. Through its practice, we can actively engage in life and find the true meaning of life. The core issue studied in positive psychology is how to make people happy, which is also a common point with electronic games. In the process of playing video games, players actively use their diverse strengths and skills, overcome difficulties one by one, empathize with the characters in the game, and get a sense of happiness and fulfillment from the corresponding feedback of the game. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what factors affect happiness and apply them to design practice. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, proposed the famous PERMA model in his book in 2011 to explain the factors that affect happiness and define and explain "what is happiness" better.

2. How to approach the PERMA model using gaming as examples?

Seligman believes that happiness consists of five elements, which are Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.

Positive Emotion

Research shows that positive emotions greatly influence our attitudes and ways of viewing the world. When the level of positive emotions is high, creativity, courage, and optimism all have a certain degree of improvement: this represents stronger performance of players in the game. At the same time, under the influence of positive emotions, players have a higher perception and evaluation of the game, and gain more satisfaction and happiness in the game.

Therefore, highlighting elements that can make people feel happy in the game and using them to stimulate players' positive emotions is very important. For example, the Forza Horizon series portrays the natural scenery of the UK and Mexico in detail, giving players a feeling of relaxation and happiness during the racing process; the collaboration costume of Naraka: bladepoint launched last year, "White Snake Legend", provides players with a visual sense of beauty and also inspires players' sense of national cultural pride and ownership.

Engagement

What makes you immerse yourself in the game and even forget about time?

It is the "Flow" mentioned earlier, proposed by another founder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In positive psychology and PERMA theory, "Flow" describes a state of immersion and wholeheartedness in the present. When players are involved, their energy and focus are simultaneously enhanced. However, the state of flow is not easy to enter into, and games need to meet the following three points:

The game itself should be rewarding and players should be inclined to play the game. This is a prerequisite.

The challenges in the game should take into account the player's abilities, match the challenge with the ability, and further engage players.

Players should feel in control of the game during the gameplay.

Sekiro: shadow die twice and Civilization series, which have always been regarded as the industry benchmarks in terms of flow experience, have done well in these three aspects:

Sekiro provides players with a thrilling action gaming experience, while Civilization provides players with a progressing and strategy gaming experience.

In Sekiro, the game difficulty is precisely on the challenge-ability line of most players, while Civilization provides players with up to 8 customizable difficulty levels.

In Sekiro, players play as a ninja "wolf" and constantly improve their combos and reactions during the game, while in Civilization, players play as the highest leader of a civilization and continuously optimize the best development strategies in game. Although Sekiro and Civilization belong to the action and strategy categories, respectively, both have achieved the ultimate in their respective fields and created an immersive gaming experience for players.

Relationship

Human is the sum of social relations. Human beings are social animals who always have a need to stay connected with others and hope to have spiritual communication with others. At the same time, good interpersonal relationships often bring people broader horizons, stronger external support, and a more stable psychological state.

And the selection of games nowadays is rich and diverse, among which there is no shortage of explanations of various social relationships in various themes. Whether it is the deep emotional bond between players and NPCs in single-player games, or the cooperative or competitive relationships established between players in online multiplayer games, they provide players who love this type of game with unique social and emotional experiences.

In the open-world single-player game The Elder Scrolls 5, which sets in the Western magic world, the first companion encountered by players in the city, Lydia, is the partner of the vast majority of players from beginning to end, accompanying them to enter dark caves, block swords and arrows for players, and share joys and sorrows with players. Therefore, Lydia has become one of the most topical characters in "The Elder Scrolls 5" and is deeply loved by many players. This shows the deep emotional connection established between players and her.

In Battlefield 1, which focuses on the experience of large maps and battlefields, each campaign is based on historical battles from World War I. Players represent one of the participating countries in the war, with 32 players in each team. At the start of the game, a monologue from the perspective of a soldier from the team is played, aiming to create a sense of identification among players. Within the game, players from the same country form social connections through mutual aid, covering fire. The intensity of charges, the bonds between comrades, and the belief in their country are all condensed into a short 20-minute battle.

Meaning and Purpose

When a player has a clear sense of meaning and purpose in game, he/she will actively start thinking about how to do better, thus entering a positive flow of "player input-game feedback-player thinking-player input".

In the 2021 TGA Game of The Year Winner It Takes Two, two players play the emotionally crumbling couple Cody and May. After another family quarrel, they were turned into a small doll that their daughter could not see. On the surface, the player's goal is to control the character to clear tasks and finally return to their own body to see their daughter; in a deeper sense, the player's goal is to let the two characters reacquaint and get familiar with each other again during the challenges, find the reason for their love for each other, and save this crumbling family. The pursuit of the surface meaning led them on a journey of personal growth, thus finding the deeper meaning.


Accomplishment

Positive psychology believes that achievement can effectively enhance a person's resilience and optimism, enabling them to face setbacks with more courage. Similarly, in games, providing appropriate feedback to players through small and big achievements can increase their acceptance of challenges and resilience, as well as enhance their sense of accomplishment and satisfaction during the gaming process, while strengthening their motivation to overcome difficulties.

3. Summary

Gaming industry leader Sid Meier said at the 2010 Game Developers Conference: "Games are a psychological experience", which profoundly reveals the inseparable link between video games and psychology. The development of game industry to this day has to admit that its greatest attraction to game players is the rich, complex, immersive, and empathetic psychological experience it creates for them. Although the psychological factors of the game process are not as dazzling as the quality of the game's graphics and special effects, their existence is the spiritual core of this interactive art.

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