In this article I explain Flow as applied to game design and draw parallels with other areas of design to form a composite concept of Game Flow.

Length: 1538 words, 8-10 minute read

Subject: I discuss flow and its application in video games. I also explain the player journey and how to structure a game to keep players challenged and engaged from start to end.

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Flow is a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that seeks to define the sensation of timelessness, deep concentration and joy that comes with being deeply engrossed in a task. Although the parallels with game design are clear, this is not a book about game design. Rather, Csikszentmihalyi explores the concept of flow as a means to achieve consistent happiness in life. I’ll strictly be covering the books application to game design in this article, but if the basis of these concepts appeals to you, I encourage you to seek out a copy.

In this article I will attempt to explain flow as it applies to game design and draw parallels with other areas of game design to form a composite concept that I’ll refer to as Game Flow.

What is Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi defines Flow as something that “[occurs] if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. Others have described the same thing as “being in the zone”. The concept also has parallels with the Daoist approach to skill, see the story of the dextrous butcher. While in a state of flow, people experience total immersion in a task, losing a sense of any worries or anxieties that exist outside of the task and even becoming unaware of the passage of time. Time spent in flow feels at the same time both endless and fleeting.

This is surely a sensation that anyone who has ever gotten deeply engrossed in a game has experienced and anyone who has experienced it would agree that it’s one of the most pleasurable sensations games can offer. When a game is just hard enough that you really need to focus, but also not so hard that it becomes frustrating, we lose ourselves in the act of playing.

This balance of difficulty is a key concept in game design and why I consider this book so important for game designers to consider. And I’m not the only one: Jenova Chen’s debut success, also named Flow, was an attempt to directly map this concept onto a game.

How to get a player to experience Flow

As I mentioned, flow occurs when the difficulty of a task is not so hard that it becomes frustrating, but also not so easy that it becomes boring. This can be mapped to a graph of challenge versus ability, like below.

Flow graph

Flow occurs within the ‘flow channel’ where the player’s ability is not too divergent from the difficulty of the game. If the difficulty spikes and the player can’t keep up, flow is broken. If the challenge doesn’t ramp up after the first few levels, the player will get bored and flow will be broken.

Now game designers should already be noticing something familiar about the shape of this graph.

It is almost exactly the same shape as a graph of the player journey would be

In case you aren’t familiar, the player journey is a concept that defines the stages a player playing a game will go through as they progress through the content. These stages are divided into 3 main groups, which each have specific requirements for keeping people playing:

  1. Newbie stage. The player has just started the game and is unlikely to be familiar with the controls or how the game works. This requires onboarding – teaching the basics in a relatively safe area. There may be limited enemies, limited options, prompts or it could be impossible to fail.
  2. Intermediate stage. The player is familiar with the basic concepts in the game, but some skills require refinement. This requires habit-building – reinforcing game techniques through repetition and gradually increasing difficulty.
  3. Enthusiast stage. The player is comfortable with everything in the game and can be introduced to advanced concepts and endgame content. This requires pathways to mastery – methods of practising high level skills in an environment conducive to high level play. This could be either against AI opponents or online players of the same skill level.

A game with a low skill ceiling like noughts and crosses, has a very short player journey – there are no high level noughts and crosses techniques. Chess on the other hand, has a high skill ceiling and a longer player journey to reach mastery. We can see how we can increase the longevity of the game by providing more pathways to mastery or help newcomers get into a game by providing more onboarding.

Now lets take a look at how we can overlay this concept of the player journey with our graph of flow from before, to create our Game Flow graph.

Game Flow graph

Game flow graph

As you can see, if we’re doing everything right, the player journey will fit snugly into the flow channel. We’ve created a boundary zone for peaks and troughs of the player journey, which we can use to give a sense whether parts of the game are too hard for the player.

Annotated climb and rest graph

Something else to note here is that the player journey is not linear – it does and should have alternating rests and climbs. By varying difficulty in this way within the bounds of the flow channel, we can ensure the player doesn’t get too burnt out, has a chance to catch his breath and can still be surprised with a novel challenge.

Now obviously the difficulty of a game is a difficult thing to measure objectively. There are no units of measurement for difficulty, or for player ability, which is why the axes are unnumbered.

But we don’t necessarily need an objective metric for difficulty, we just need to know how difficult the player perceives the game to be.

If we attempt to gather objective data on game difficulty we’re likely to run into problems. We can simply measure the amount of deaths a player has at certain parts of the game and try to infer the difficulty from that, but then we know nothing about why the player is struggling.

For example, people seem to have particular issues with the Nameless King boss from the new Dark Souls game. Players say that the boss itself isn’t so hard, but the camera angles are so bad during the fight that it’s almost as if the camera itself is the real boss. This kind of information won’t be obvious from any sort of objective difficulty metrics.

So we must instead use a heuristic measurement – i.e. get a general sense of the difficulty by asking people their thoughts and using a best guess to map that to a graph. This underscores the importance of play testing with live players during development and ensuring you have players from all 3 sections of the player journey. It’s no good having your enthusiast tester who has been playing the game since the first alpha to test the onboarding at the start of the game.

You could even go so far as to use the same method Csikszentmihalyi used to identify flow in the first place, which involved giving test subjects a beeper and having them record what they’re doing, how they feel about it and how happy they are each time the beeper went off (with timing varying day to day). This is a much better way of deducing the level of player boredom or frustration at certain parts of the game, because their feelings are fresh and clear.

When we’re asked our opinion of a game at the end, we tend to suffer from a cognitive bias called the peak-end rule. This bias describes how our opinion of something after the fact tends to be the average of how it good it was at the peak and how good it was at the end – ignoring much of the experiences in between.

But polling opinions at random intervals can circumvent this bias and give us a much truer idea of the player’s experience as the game is being played.

Conditions for flow to occur

One last thing to mention on flow before we finish. Csikszentmihalyi states that there are 3 key conditions that must be present for flow to occur. These are:

  1. “Balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill”. This is the flow channel described above. Note the use of the word ‘perceived’, which is an important consideration.
  2. “Clear goals”. It should be obvious to the player how they can continue to the next stage of the player journey within the game.
  3. “Clear and immediate feedback”. The player should be informed of how well they are doing – clear feedback is a key component of motivational theory, which will be covered in a future article.

 

That covers my thoughts on the application of flow to game design, but it’s not everything there is to flow. For more information on how to apply the concept of flow to your life to increase personal happiness and satisfaction, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s book.

Further reading:

Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness