Flow & so many smashed controllers

Smashed Controller

I have been thinking lately about the concept of ‘flow’ as it applies to life and games.

We have all had the feeling of getting lost in an activity and losing track of time. As a video editor, I am all too aware of benefits of flow – getting in the ‘zone’ make the work feel actually enjoyable – more like play than work and means the final product generally turns out “just right” (I find that this tends to happen when I am cutting to music).

The concept of ‘flow’ was first articulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

I recently watched a TED talk with Csikszentmihalyi where he talks about his life long interest in the elusive area of human happiness.

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory is that that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow, which he defines as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.”

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Csikszentmihalyi identified eight aspects to flow:

  1. A challenging activity requiring skill;
  2. A merging of action and awareness;
  3. Clear goals;
  4. Direct, immediate feedback;
  5. Concentration on the task at hand;
  6. A sense of control;
  7. A loss of self-consciousness; and
  8. An altered sense of time.

So it is not really surprising that the concept of flow has been taken up by game designers and theorists to assist them in both explaining why some games are more immersive than others and how to make games more enjoyable.

This morning I checked out a game called flOw by That Game Company. Interestingly its design was based on an MFA Thesis by one of the creators.

Most central to this thesis is the idea that flow can only occur when there is a correct balance between the abilities of the player and the difficulty/challenge – as articulated in this diagram (source).

The challenge, however, is that different people have different abilities. A gamer “n00b” may get frustrated and anxious playing the same game that a hardcore gamer will get bored with after 5 minutes. Both circumstances will result in a lack of flow and most likely a premature termination of play/smashed controller.

This made me think of good old Guitar Hero. I started playing on the easy level and I was admittedly quite appalling – but because “easy” was challenging yet manageable I found myself getting better and quickly addicted. When “easy” got…well…easy and thus boring I moved on to medium and then difficult (orange button – woot!). Each level challenged me and kept me hooked.

I admit to wasting away many an evening compulsively playing the same song over and over again and making everyone in the share house permanently allergic to an entire catalogue of popular recording artist. Time seriously disappeared – like literally.
Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design (utilising the idea of Flow) explains my mania as such:

This cycle of tense and release, tense and release – comes up again and again in design. It seems to be inherent to human enjoyment. Too much tension, and we wear out. Too much relaxation, and we grow bored. When we fluctuate between the two, we enjoy both excitement and relaxation, and this oscillation also provides both the pleasure of variety, and the pleasure of anticipation.

Providing players with a variety of levels at different difficulties from which they can select is an obvious, yet kind of boring solution to this. The alternative is the techy-sounding Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA) and some exploration of this topic can be found in the thesis.

There is obviously more to applying flow to games than just getting the difficulty/ability balance right – but psychology tells us that it’s an essential foundation and is an important element of any good game design.

But one thing to ponder – if it is true that being in a state of flow is what causes us to be happy – does that mean the perfectly attuned dynamic “flow”-creating game will be like an eternal happiness-making machine? :O