4 min read

What *exactly* do we call FLOW in games

The excessive focus on mechanical flow pushes all other potential qualities of our medium aside, even some decidedly unique to it — like, for example, player agency in telling a story.

Recently I wrote an article discussing why I considered cognitive flow in games as detrimental to the evolution of the medium, in particular as it pertains to telling stories through games.

The article generated some discussion, but only partly because my point was so poorly conveyed. A large part of the disconnect between what I meant and how it was received seemed to stem from the fact that there are many interpretations of how the meaning of “cognitive flow” relates to games.

I was not aware of that.

I feel like Csikszentmihalyi’s ( << yes, I pasted that) seminal work on the subject, as well as its possible implications to gaming have been dissected enough, so I won’t rehash the main points here. If you are interested, start here and here.

I also think those interpretations are egregious extrapolations at best, and plainly wrong at worst when applied to ALL GAMES EQUALLY.

Obviously, flow cannot be created, nor summoned explicitly — but the conditions for it to occur can: there must be balance between the difficulty of the challenge in performing a task, and the skills (competence) of the person performing it. Possessing adequate skills to surmount a given challenge affords the opportunity for a person to enter a flow-like state, allowing the suspension of higher cognitive functions of the brain.

This is NOT what happens to players when they “enter flow state” while playing their favorite shooter.

What happens is something that looks and feels similar — motor learned behavior, or muscle memory. You have practiced something so many times before, that your muscles react without needing explicit commands from your brain. In some way, this is flow — but only the most primitive kind, one that requires a challenge suited only to the most common skill set humans posses — muscle control, reaction.

When the principal tools for overcoming the game’s challenge are your body and your senses (most of which operate on instinct), this is useful and desired. But when the principal tool is your brain — the parity between flow and motor learned behavior quickly disappears.

That’s not to say the drop-off in parity is instantaneous. No, game developers are also very good at creating conditions for flow in systemic, sandbox games that are built around a finite set of game-rules. These kinds of games (say, real-time strategies, more recently survival games) require active brain function and long term planning in addition to motor learned behavior.

But these types of flow are primarily mechanical, and we are only good at them because the conditions for their occurrence are easily measurable, by measuring the player’s own perceived “frustration”. This kind of measurement of flow has all but taken over all aspects of game testing, because it can be empirically formatted, planned for and objectively improved (by tracking consecutive test results). The problem is — this only tests the game’s proximity to the motor behaviors that the player has already learned!

The excessive focus on mechanical flow pushes all other potential qualities of our medium aside, even some decidedly unique to it — like, for example, player agency in telling a story. We are quick to sacrifice any advance in more interactive storytelling, if it interferes with mechanical flow because that’s what we have trained players (and by extension testers) to respond to. Testers feel more useful if they can point to something that interferes with mechanical flow, rather than something that interferes with the interactivity of the story being told.

As a result, when it comes to using our medium’s unique strengths in telling stories- we are stuck in its infancy. We borrow storytelling tools from other, more passive forms of entertainment (like movies and books) and we only interrupt the mechanical flow of games for short periods of time (most commonly cutscenes), long enough to cram the shallowest form of exposition to justify asking the players to perform the same mechanical, menial tasks we have asked them to perform since forever.

And we are afraid to ask something more of players than those same mechanical, menial tasks because we are afraid of the “frustration hammer”.

We are not looking for (non-mechanical) flow, we are filtering out anything that is not already trained in our players.

That’s why flow, as we currently understand it in games, sucks!

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