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The Psychological State of "Flow" and Game Design

Flow. You've experienced it, but you might not know exactly what it is. I believe if you can get into flow, you can enjoy any game - even one you think you'd hate.

Erik Hazzard, Blogger

November 1, 2016

7 Min Read

I've seen flow discussed in a number of places before, but I didn't really truly get it until I read the book by the psychologist who first recognized the concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Then I thought about the best gaming experiences I've had, and realized that, regardless of genre, they all had one thing in common: I was in flow when I played them. So, I collected my thoughts and made a podcast about the psychological state of "Flow" and how it applies to both game players and game designers. You can find it online AtAHigherLevel.com or on iTunes.

Maybe it's obvious to other people but it was an enlightening moment for me, because I realized that if I could more fully understand what flow is, I could optimize my game playing experiences and become a better player. But to do that, you need to understand how flow works. So, this podcast episode is a collection of what I've learned about flow. It's a bit long, so I'll just summarize the main points here.

What is Flow?

This is a summarization of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's statements about flow, so it's not an exhaustive list nor is it as fully fleshed out as what he outlines in his book about Flow. So, I'd be happy to hear from you guys if I have overlooked something. Here are the three requirements for entering flow:

  1. Good Skill vs. Challenge Match. Your skill and game's difficulty must be roughly matched.

  2. Clear goals and Immediate Feedback. You must know what to do, and you must be given clear feedback when you do it.

  3. 100% Fully Focused attention. You cannot be distracted - you cannot be multitasking

If these three rules are met, you're in the state of flow. It can be hard for a game to meet these requirements. This is because not only does the game have to be well designed to provide good challenges and avoid in-game distractions like lag and bugs; the player of the game must also be willing to give the game their full attention.

1. Skill vs. Challenge

If the game is too easy, you won't be in flow. If it's too hard, you'll be anxious, or frustrated, and you won't be in flow. It has to be just the right match. Why?

At the core, I feel that games are about learning. You improve your skills, you learn new strategies, you overcome challenges thrown at you and you grow as a player. When there is no learning - either because it's too easy and you know it already, or it's too hard and you don't have the foundation to learn at that level - you generally won't be having much fun and you won't be in flow. Even games like Minecraft, which seem to have no clear win / loss state, can have quite the match of skill vs. challenge. The difference here is that you are making the challenges for yourself (e.g., "I want to build a castle"); so the difficultly and skill match up is almost naturally matched since you are providing it yourself.

But, it's not about what game you play. It's all about how you play it. Even Mario can produce flow for both beginners and experts. If you're a newbie, you can get into flow just by learning how to use the controller (since your skill is so low). If you're an expert, you can challenge yourself to beat the game in the fastest time possible. In both cases, the challenge and your skill are roughly matched.

Competitive games naturally lead themselves to flow experiences, because if you cannot achieve flow the game will usually fail. Games that don't rely on flow can fall back to creating other kinds of experiences, such as relaxing world exploration or social experiences. The word compete actually comes from a world in latin (competere (com-pay-ter-ray)), which means: “To seek together”. Competition is really about working with other people to improve yourself, not working against them.

2. Clear Goals and Immediate Feedback

If you don't know what to do, you can't focus on the game and you won't be in flow. It sounds like this would be simple to achieve, but it's actually one of the more difficult parts about designing a game with flow in mind. Everyone comes to the game with different skill sets and experiences and expectations. Take Counterstrike. The goal seems so obvious: "Kill the enemy team," and the feedback seems immediate - "Are you dead? No. What's your health? 90." However, that is a very broad goal which is actually made up of a myriad of sub goals. Most of these subgoals are invisible to players who are unfamiliar with the FPS genre. Here are just a few sub goals: Don't die - don't expose yourself to enemy fire - know where to go on the map - know when to go there - know when to peek out around a corner - know where to place your crosshair to aim as little as possible - know when to reload - know what weapon to use given the circumstance - know where to throw grenades - know when to walk - know when to run - know how to work with your teammates - know timings of strategies - and the list goes on.

This gets at the idea of game depth. At the core, game depth really means: "how much there is to learn." A game like counterstrike is actually extremely deep, because there are so many things you must learn to accomplish the stated goal of the game. It seems simple on the surface - but so does any activity if you don't have a deeper understanding of it. Chess seems like a simple game of moving around pieces, because strategies and concepts (board position, building pieces, etc.) are invisible until you learn them. If you only see the output, you can't gauge how deep something is if you haven't learned about it.

3. Fully focused attention

Too often, when playing a game, we let our egos get too involved. This is an internal, player driven reaction that takes your attention away from the game and focuses it on things completely unrelated to gameplay. I see this all the time when playing Counterstrike or Overwatch - people get too upset and then insult others, or troll, or do things outside of the game that ruins the experience not just for them but for everyone else. Many games can also be played casually. This is not a knock against them, and they may be fun and pass the time - but they won't lead to enriching, rewarding flow experiences. If you can listen to a podcast, or read a book, or do anything else while you're playing a game - you're not in flow.

Designing games with Flow

There aren't a lot of general purpose techniques, since each game is unique and must craft a tailored experience for the player. However, there are a few tools that can be used to help encourage flow. Leaderboards and data visualization are a couple of these tools. Leaderboards provide both feedback on your progress and an implicit goal of raising your rank.

Data visualization can also help give you clear feedback on your performance. Data viz can be used to help show you how your skill is progressing. Virtual Progression (levels in World of Warcraft for instance) are not good examples of this - just because you're level 100, it doesn't mean you're necessarily a better player than someone who is level 10. However, ELO Rankings are slightly different. While not perfect, a chess player with an ELO ranking of 1800 is going to nearly always beat a player with an ELO ranking of 1100.


In the podcast, we go deeper and analyze Counterstrike through the lens of flow with someone who has never played it (and had no desire to). I claim that if you can get into flow, you'll enjoy any game - even one you think you hate, and in the interview we find out if that idea has merit. You can find it online AtAHigherLevel.com or on iTunes.

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