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.



Meditation is intimidating. To me, it has a magical spiritual quality to it as if it were step one of a grand transformation where ultimately I stop drinking and eating meat, and never get angry, and shave my head. Also, there's this inner doubt that if nothing happens and I continue eating meat and going to bars, that somehow it's not working. Definitely my own issues are involved here… but I don't think I'm the only one with these issues. People who practice and teach meditation of course try to remove these expectations from us amateurs, but it's very difficult to erase meaning and association from a word. Meaning clings like glue. It's easier to just get a new word. Instead of learning how to meditate, learn how to sit still.

There are no social or spiritual implications associated with people who sit still compared to those that are associated with people who meditate. Everyone knows how to sit still and everyone knows that it's not a big deal. In fact, it may have a slightly ridiculous association if any, and one might be tempted to conduct this exercise in the corner while sitting on your hands. It brings back images of childhood and our own reckless unruliness.

And yet, it's still strangely difficult. Why is it so difficult to sit still even for a couple minutes?

Meditation is a momentum killer

I think the difficulty of sitting still is a mental one. Over time we've trained ourselves to avoid sitting still for practical reasons involving motivation, momentum, and getting the many things of the day done. When I think about the thoughts that immediately fill my head when I suggest to myself that maybe I should try sitting still for a bit and doing nothing for 15 minutes, my brain protests and says that it will interrupt the flow of the day. A certain level of buzz and motion in my brain can serve as an energy source for the tasks I'm presented with in the course of the day. To let that spin down might cause my mind to stall out and become unable to continue with the rest of the tasks I've got mindlessly lined up like ducks along the fence. When I've got a few errands to run that I don't necessarily want to run, I start figuratively waving my arms about, running in circles, screaming, and generally spinning myself up and distracting myself from too much mental investigation of true value in the things I'm doing so that I can mindlessly direct the building energy at the few errands and bulldoze them over without thinking about it and talking myself out of it. Does this sound familiar at all?

Positive and negative affect

It's a useful motivational trick to use excess physical and mental energy from one source and direct it at another source that wouldn't have otherwise been able to generate the energy on its own. For many of us, this practice becomes habit and we train ourselves to always have some reserved well of momentum available. This well is a positive affect. It is a resource to tap into and use both as a savings account for difficult tasks, and also a cushion when we're hit with a negative event of any kind. If someone insults you, or things don't go as you've planned, the positive affect can absorb the cost of that blow and you can continue on without too much impact. Negative affect, or motivational debt, is often associated with depression. Every new task seems impossible because there's no momentum or energy to tap into. Everything instead has to rely on its own worthiness in order to bootstrap itself into being done… and this only if there aren't existing tasks that are of higher (if less enjoyable) priority lobbying for that energy for itself. Those people with negative affect become overly sensitive, as every insult sends your energy and motivation into deeper debt and has a visible impact on your ability to get along in normal social situations. Because of this positive/negative affect ecosystem, which we've all experienced high highs and low lows of at some point during our lives, we tend to be very protective of our affect well. This is why sitting still (or meditating) can be seen as a treat.

The truth is that sitting still does have the ability to change your affect. It'll challenge the momentum that you've got going and help you examine why you're doing the things you're doing. It won't drain you, or demotivate you, but rather show you what you're doing… at which point you can decide for yourself if the things you are doing are actually worth doing. Because of the positive/negative affect system, we'll sometimes do things simply to keep momentum up… we all know people who are always occupying themselves and who are constantly busy with something… and we all know that sometimes the things we keep ourselves busy with are not really that important. Sitting still is one way to do some spring cleaning in your motivation and momentum systems. Or, it might just give you a sore butt.