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The case against FLOW in games

Flow is not the enemy, as long as it knows its bounds. Everyone enjoys a game that encourages disengaging higher cognitive functions, at least from time to time — I know I do. But that can’t be all there is.

Petar Kotevski, Blogger

June 28, 2017

4 Min Read

You sit down to play a game.

Hours later, you realize you have been playing the game for hours. You are not sure where the time went.

That’s FLOW. The experience has engulfed you to such a degree, that you have shed your normal self, and temporarily inhibited another entity/space/time.

And it doesn’t just happen with games. It happens with books, movies — any sort of medium that offers any degree of escapism. It’s a powerful thing.

But it also sucks, especially in games.

Flow in movies, books and other passive forms of entertainment is possible and desirable because the consumer only has to possess the most basic skill-set imaginable to be told a story: reading and comprehension. For games, it’s a little more complicated than that, because they offer agency to their consumers, some interaction and a more custom-tailored experience for every different player. At least in theory…

In a game, flow can be a strength or a weakness. It’s a strength in racing games, sports games, games like Super Meat Boy or even shooters (competitive or otherwise) — in general, games where higher cognitive function is counter-productive and well,- it simply gets in the way.

More often though, it’s a weakness. Specifically, it is a weakness in all cases where the goal is to not train muscle memory, or automate hand-eye-mouse coordination — and even more specifically where a story needs to be told.

You see, when telling a story — especially in an interactive medium — you want to engage the player’s brain. Not to solve difficult tasks or puzzles, but to think about what to do next, invest emotions into characters and situations, plan optimal strategies and CARE. Yes, care about stuff, characters, food rations, armor-piercing bullets… In interactive stories, the brain is the toy, and it is the task of the game to create a fertile ground, an interesting sandbox for it to play in.

Unfortunately, FLOW wants to get involved here as well. You may challenge the brain, but not so much as to inhibit the progress of the player towards the next level. No subtlety, please — some people may not get it, or worse: they may get frustrated! No complicated character interaction OUTSIDE a controlled cut-scene (the player may want to skip it) — and for God’s sake, if he skips that cut-scene, IT MUST BE IMMEDIATELY OBVIOUS TO HIM WHAT HE SHOULD DO NEXT!

And if it isn’t, make it fucking glow RED!

So, we are relegated to finding and restarting power sources over and over again; finding 3 pieces for something some fucker only realized he needed when he saw us passing by. And even when the story is beautiful (say, BioShock Infinite), we still have to drudge through hours of “beautiful FLOW shootery” just to see a little movie that tells us what happens next.

Why does this happen?

That’s an easy question to answer. We got flow down! We understand it, we can measure it (playtests, focus tests), and we can improve it in iteration, and we can clearly measure the improvement! Games are products, with products development cycles, and flow is the one tangible metric one can offer as some assurance that a game will do well (It will frustrate no one, at least). But at the same time it is just a glorified way of reducing games to the lowest possible common denominator across all players.

We should not be afraid to ask more of players. We should not be afraid to FRUSTRATE them occasionally — that’s also a valid emotion. We should not be afraid to deliberately adopt a slower pace for our games — and most importantly, we should not be afraid that players will not understand what to do if we just create a situation for them, but NOT tell them exactly what to do to solve it. We should not think it a waste of time and resources to allow different ways to resolve a situation, for different players.

This is particularly important for interactive stories, a medium truly in its infancy.

FLOW is not the enemy, as long as it knows its bounds. Everyone enjoys a game that encourages disengaging higher cognitive functions, at least from time to time — I know I do. But that can’t be all there is. And the alternatives to it can’t all be “crazy, experimental indie games” — we owe it to our players to make a serious effort to bring thoughtful, deliberate and yes,- slow games into the mainstream.

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