Banished and Psychological Flow

In this article, I discuss the effects of experiencing psychological "Flow" while playing Banished, and other simulation games.

I was taking a look at my Steam friends list a few days ago and was surprised to see three separate people all playing Banished. Seeing as how I have not fired up that game in what seems like years, I decided to give it another go.

I remember when the game was first announced I was so excited that I was literally counting the days waiting for its release. I remember pouring hours into the game, testing out all the different settings, creating my village and watching all the little characters running around going about their business.

Coming back to the game, I took a look at the workshop and saw the hundreds of new mods that were now out and felt a bit overwhelmed. Sticking to my usual method of searching and adding the mods from the "Top Rated of all Time" filter, I fired up the game and went on my way to start up my new town Kruger.

Since I had a decent amount of experience with the game, I had no trouble setting up my village with all the necessities, and learning what the new mods allowed me to do. I was quickly well on my way to a large, happy and healthy population. One awesome, and bad thing about the game is that the nature of it is just so addicting. You have probably heard and seen it before, but the iconic catchphrase associated with the Civilization series, and 4X genre in general, is "Just one more turn". And oh boy, does Banished have that same effect on me.

The simple nature of the game, accompanied by the peaceful music and ambient sounds make it so easy for a player to fall into the state of "Flow". For those that don't know, "Flow" is a term coined by legendary Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (what an insane name right?) in which a person becomes so concentrated and absorbed in an activity that they lose all sense of time and concern for anything other than the task at hand. Colloquially, this concept is often called "being in the zone", but when you are a Psychologist you get to give common phrases cool names, because dammit, you did research!

Cool side note: I was actually originally hoping to get accepted to Claremont University, where Mihaly teaches, and study Positive Psychology, but was unfortunately rejected (I'm honestly glad it happened, otherwise I would not be studying game design at Full Sail), but I digress.


In the case of Banished, I was playing the game because I wanted to. That's the cool thing about games, we choose to play the game, so we are already part of the way to achieving Flow. First step down.In order to achieve this state of flow, many prerequisites must be met. First, we must be working on a task that we are doing completely for its' own sake. You have to make the conscious decision of doing the action simply because you want to do it. Second, the task at hand has to be sufficiently difficult in order to engage our cognitive ability, but not too difficult as it will only bring frustration and mental stress, and not too easy as it will simply bore us. And third, you must have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve in the task, as well as having immediate and clear feedback on how well you are doing in the task.

Since I had previous experience in Banished, I was already knowledgeable enough to know exactly how to start out planning a successful village without much thought. The key to succeeding in any city-planning or strategy game is planning out ahead of time what you wish to do. I was consciously making decisions to leave empty space next to buildings, creating extra roads and making mental notes in my head on when and where I wanted to construct buildings. The addition of the mods I enabled caused me to step back and rethink my normal strategy and include some of the new buildings and adjust how I would assign my citizens, increasing my mental activity. Second step down.

The goal of Banished is obvious enough to any player. Make a village and keep everyone alive, happy and healthy. In order to make sure you are achieving this goal, the game has a gear icon in the bottom menu allowing you open up useful information and tools to assist you in creating your village. I always open up the citizen assignment tab and the resources tab, allowing me to keep track of who is working where, and how I am doing on food, lumber, tools, clothing, firewood, and more. 

As I was playing I could easily see my progress towards producing enough food to keep my citizens alive, enough lumber to create firewood to warm my citizens during the harsh winter, and enough tools to allow them to continue working. If I failed to notice that my stock of clothes was getting low, a small alert appears next to the menu signaling to the player "HEY! YOU'RE RUNNING LOW ON CLOTHES!", immediately letting me know that I have a clothing problem! I could then take a look at my resource tab and see what surpluses I currently had, and based on that information quickly transfer citizens to generate more clothing. Third step down.

A partial shot of my town, which currently has 220 citizens and more food than they could possibly eat. If you look in the top left, you can see the resource and citizen assignment window.

All of this combined allowed for me to drift into a state of Flow, making me completely lose all track of time and other obligations, like forgetting to eat...or forgetting I have class in 10 minutes (thankfully I am only a five minute drive away). Obviously there are many other factors at play that lead me to achieving Flow. For example, the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine whenever I see the finished construction of a building, and my own preferences for simulation and construction games, but let's just focus on Flow. 

All game designers and developers should be aiming towards giving players the opportunity to achieve a state of Flow, as it signals that the game they have created is fun and engaging for players. There are many, many ways to help players achieve a state of Flow other than simply following the three steps to achieving Flow that I outlined above. 

For example, Dead Space uses a diegetic User Interface for its' item menu, allowing players to feel that game is still going on around them even though they have "paused" the game. Creating seamless transitions from cut scenes to gameplay, such as the iconic opening sequence in the first Bioshock, can also aid in a player achieving Flow. The list goes on. 

Here is an in-game shot of the menu from Dead Space. You can also track your health and "Stasis" meter by looking at spine of your exterior suit, another awesome feature that can lead to better immersion in games as you don't have to suspend your disbelief when looking at a floating health bar like in other games.

Just by knowing and implementing these simple tricks and techniques can make all the difference in providing players with an engaging, and unique experience. 

This concept of Flow can be applied to anything in life, not just in games. As you have probably heard and read countless times, the happiest people in life are that way because the work they do is something that they love. If you find yourself in a job where you dread waking up in the morning, it's probably a sign telling you that you need to find a new job, or maybe even a new career. 

If you are going to spend half of your day at work for God knows how many years, at least do something that you enjoy, that way you can be feel proud of what you are doing, providing yourself with much needed affirmation that what you are doing is worth it. 

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