Flow a.k.a Optimal Experience in the Context of Video Games

Do you play video games? Do you have a friend that plays video games? Did you ever see yourself, your friend, your child being in the zone and they seemed bothered when interrupted? Did you ever hear about the Flow state or the “being in the zone” term? Are you in the video game industry? If your answer was yes to one of these questions above, then this article is for you.

I’ve decided to conduct research on the ‘Flow’, contextualize the findings, and shape it around video games. My goal with this research is to help fellow members of the industry out by providing access to the details of the Flow, contextualized around video games in one place. Also, this article is for anyone who plays video games, and would like to understand why they are into gaming, or why their child, friend or neighbor are into some games so much that when they play, the sense of the real world is diminished around them. I want to understand why some games can make time pass by so quickly while doing some unpleasant homework can feel as if time slowed down.

Flow is a subject often talked about in video game development, especially among Design and Product teams. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that most people in the industry know about the Flow, but there isn’t a clear definition or guide about the Flow in the context of video game development.

Let’s jump right into it and discover what it’s all about!

What are the common characteristics of the Flow a.k.a. being in the zone?

A sense that a player’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well the player is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. A gameplay that produces such experiences can be extremely gratifying. Is the feeling familiar?

Let’s go one layer below this and see the core elements of a game design that will open the door to the Flow state and welcome players into the “heaven of video gaming”.

A game design with rules that require the learning of a skill, a game design that sets up goals, provides feedback and makes control possible. A game design that facilitates concentration and involvement by making the gameplay as distinct as possible from the reality of everyday existence.

I listed arguably the most well-known games of popular game genres in the table below to see which core game design elements can be found in their gameplay.

As you can see, every single game from the list is equipped with the core elements of game design. Let’s pick League of Legends, one of the most if not the most played game in the recent years, and deconstruct it by the core elements of game design. The only way for players to play League of Legends is in the Flow state. One match can last for an hour or even longer, during which concentration of the players is at its peak.

Learning a Skill: Players need to learn the rules of the game, learn the mechanics of each character and the functionality of each item that can be added to a character.

Sets up Goals: The main goal is to defeat the base of the opponent’s team. Other than that, you’re battling 5 opponents whom you have to outplay skill-wise, and you need to farm more minions than your opponent on your lane to gain power advantage. These are just the main goals; there are many more smaller goals during the gameplay.

Provides Feedback: There are many ways that the game provides feedback on how the player performs, such as Health bar, Number of minion kills, Number of opponent kills, number of towers taken down and many more.

Makes Control Possible: The player is in control of the selected character for the battle. Also, the player has the discretion over which items to use. The spells are activated when the player wants them to be activated (when the spells are not on cooldown)

Facilitates Concentration: There are so many actions to pay attention to; without a solid concentration, League of Legends is not playable. All the previous points prompt the players to concentrate.

Distinct Gameplay from Reality: The matches are played on a map where dragons and minions are part of the gameplay. Players are controlling Champions (characters of LoL), who have special unique abilities.

So, now you might have a question: If designers integrate all the core elements mentioned above into the game, will that be enough to guarantee success? The short answer is: no. To clearly explain why it is not the case, we have to first understand the Main Game Genres of the Flow and then the Optimal Experience.

Main Game Genres of the Flow

There are 4 genres of the games that open the door to the Flow:

Agon: Competition as a main feature of the gameplay.

Alea: This is a genre that mainly features games of chance such as dice, bingo, and lucky wheels.

Ilinx: Gives activities that alter consciousness by scrambling ordinary perception, such as racing and simulators.

Mimicry: Alternative realities are created; examples include open-world games and shooters.

Each of the genres represents a way that leads to the Flow Experience.

Using this system, we can say that games need to offer opportunities within the definition of the genres to go beyond the boundaries of ordinary life experiences. Games need to provide an environment for players where one or more of the abovementioned 4 genres are represented.

In agonistic games, the participant must stretch their skills to meet the challenge provided by the skills of the opponents. The opponent does not necessarily have to be a real person; it can be a PvE (player vs environment) scenario. These are games such as racing, shooter or any other skill-based games like Angry Birds by Rovio or the upcoming release of Square Enix: Tomb Raider Reloaded.

Fun fact: The etymology of the word “compete” is the Latin competere, which meant “to seek together”. What each person seeks is to actualize their potential, and this task is made easier when others force us to do our best. Of course, competition improves experience only as long as attention is primarily focused on the activity itself.

If extrinsic goals such as beating the opponent or wanting to impress an audience are what one is concerned about, then competition is likely to become a distraction, rather than an incentive to focus consciousness on what is happening.

Aleatory games are enjoyable because they give the illusion of controlling the instructable future. These are games that do not require much of an input such as slot machine games, but the impact of potential outcome can be positive or in rare cases negative in a way that can be future-altering.

Ilinx is the most direct way to alter consciousness. An activity that transforms the way we perceive reality is enjoyable. Like in the GTA series, players walk around in a seemingly realistic world, doing all they want.

Games that are part of the Mimicry genre makes us feel as though we are more than what we actually are through fantasy. These are mainly role-playing games where the player controls the character and becomes one with it. The character becomes the extension of the player’s mind; as a result, the player feels powerful in the moment.

We now learned about the core game design elements that are essential and the game genres that are more likely to elevate the player to the Flow state. The last piece of puzzle that is missing is the Optimal Experience, without which the game will not be sticky and players will not enjoy the game.

It is this dynamic feature that explains why Flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. The player either becomes bored or frustrated, and then the desires to enjoy themselves again pushes them to stretch their skills, or to discover new opportunities to use the skill in hand properly. The two theoretically most important dimensions are Challenges and Skills, which are represented on the two axes of the diagram above. The letter P represents a player, who wishes to learn a tennis game. The diagram shows the player at four different points in time. When the player first starts playing (P1), the player has practically no skills, and the only challenge the player faces is hitting the ball over the net. This is not a very difficult task, but the player is likely to enjoy it because the difficulty is just right according to the current level of skills. Therefore, the player will probably be in Flow at this point. However, the player cannot stay there for long. After a while, if the player keeps practicing, their skills will improve and then the player will grow bored just hitting the ball over the net (P2). Or it might happen that they meet a more skilled opponent, in which case they will realize that there are much harder challenges for them than just lobbing the ball — at that point, the player will feel some anxiety concerning their poor performance (P3).

Neither boredom nor anxiety are positive experiences, so the player will be motivated to return to the Flow state. How will they do it? Taking a look again at the diagram, we see that if they are bored (P2) and wishes to be in Flow again, the player has essentially only one choice: to increase the challenges they are facing (the player also has a choice, which is to give up tennis, in which case the player would simply disappear from the diagram). By setting a new and more difficult goal that matches the player’s skills — for instance, to beat an opponent just a little more advanced than the current one — the player would be back in Flow. If the player is anxious (P3), the way back to Flow requires enhancing the current skill level of the player.

The diagram shows that both P1 and P4 represent situations in which the player is in Flow. Although both are equally enjoyable, the two states are quite different in that P4 is a more complex experience than P1. It is more complex because it involves greater challenges, and demands greater skills from the player.

However, P4, although complex and enjoyable, does not represent a stable situation either. As the player keeps playing, either they will become bored by the stale opportunities at that level, or will become anxious and frustrated by their relatively low ability. Hence, the motivation to enjoy themselves again will push the player to get back into the Flow channel, but now at a level of complexity even higher than P4.

According to the studies done by the University of Chicago, every Flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had the following in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to states of consciousness that had hitherto been undreamt of.

Being in Flow state is an extremely pleasurable and addictive feeling:

Flow state = where nothing around us matters. Flow state can be reached only in the present moment. Human mind is filled with thoughts and is mainly either in the past or the future: ideas, problems, and desires. The past and future obsessive thinking brings us away from the fact that what we really and only have is the present moment. This is why we experience what is pleasurable, the problem-free present moment, when we play a video game in the Flow.


Entry into the Flow

What does it take to achieve this state? From the moment players enter the arena where there is an event, players cease to act in terms of common sense, and concentrate on the game instead of the idiosyncrasies of the game, like how it’s built, or what are the elements and what could be the possible outcome.

Here are a few examples: In racing games, players enter the Flow state when the countdown timer starts to count from 3, 2, 1 and Go.

Racing Countdown that sucks the player into the Flow State at the start

In League of Legends, when the match starts, the narrator with a friendly voice says: “Welcome to Summoners Rift” — I remember when Riot Games changed the voice of the narrator in 2015, the LoL community protested against the change on all possible forums. The reason was because the players were so used to it that the different voice of the narrator would potentially have gotten them out of the Flow.

League of Legends narrator welcomes the players at the start of a match

Such Flow activities are designed as the primary function to offer the enjoyable experience ahead. When players hear or see the signs of the start of an event, they get in the Flow and are set for a joyful ride. These activities help players achieve the desired state of mind that is highly enjoyable.

It is important to note that just because a player is objectively involved in an activity that can potentially provide the Flow state does not mean that the player is automatically brought into this state. Why? Because it hinges on not only the challenges presented by the game / game design, but also the personal interest of the player toward the game and its challenges. A player who enjoys racing games might not be interested in a game from the MOBA genre, even though they both provide thrill and challenges.

When an activity starts, at first it is not the skills that determine how the player feels, but the skills that the player thinks he has prior to the start. A player that has experience in a game and thinks he has what it takes to reach the goal will likely start the game again. Also, a player that has previous experience within a given game genre will likely discover a different game from the same genre, with the intention of seeking out the Flow state, knowing that they have the skills to enter the Flow. This is also one of the reasons why it is hard to attract hardcore fans of a genre to a different genre.

Hope you enjoyed reading my article. If you have any questions regarding this article or anything related to the gaming world, hit me up on LinkedIn.

Sources: Flow by Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi, Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois

Creating magic with creative teams at Square Enix Montreal.