Flow in games

June 15, 2006

Andy Baio and Leonard Lin mentioned an interesting game to me yesterday, appropriately named Flow.  Other than being insanely calming, the game is unique in that you have some control on the games difficulty.  You can go down levels if you want it to be more challenging, or up levels if you want it to be less challenging.  The game creator, Jenova Chen, created the game as part of her fascinating thesis: Flow in Games.  One of the goals is to understand what makes games fun; where does the enjoyment of games come from, and why do our brains find them interesting.  

20 years ago, with an intention to explain happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found Flow, the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. [Debold 2002]

Csikszentmihalyi developed a series of theories to help people get into their Flow state. Since then, these theories have been applied to various fields for designing better human interactive experiences. One of his most inspiring achievements in these theories is the definition of the Flow Zone, also known as “the Zone” by the gamers:


In order to maintain a person’s Flow experience, the activity needs to reach a balance between the challenges of the activity and the abilities of the participant. If the challenge is higher than the ability, the activity becomes overwhelming and generates anxiety. If the challenge is lower than the ability, it provokes boredom. Fortunately, human beings have tolerance, there is a fuzzy safe zone where the activity is not too challenging or too boring, and psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur. [Csikszentmihalyi 1990]

Due to the special relationship between challenge and ability, Flow has been used in fields like sports and tutoring. The famous GRE test is a good example of design based on the concept of the Flow Zone.

The description of Flow is identical to what a player experiences when totally immersed in a video game. During this experience, the player loses track of time and forgets all external pressures. It is obvious that gamers value video games based on whether or not those games can provide Flow experiences. [Holt 2000]

Clearly, there are a lot of familiar concepts here.  Happiness, stress, challenge.  Video games are a very lucrative industry, and because learning what creates flow will help create better, more profitable, video games, the field will likely be pouring lots of money into it.  Luckily, we can then take those same learnings and apply them to less lucrative fields with a little cut and paste and find and replace.

Elements of flow, or fun, include:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernable).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time – our subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is not too easy or too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

Look for things in your life that have these qualities, and also look for things in your life that lack these qualities.  And play this game.  It's great.



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