The concept of flow is particularly interesting in terms of game design. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi delves deeply into the topic and I’d fully recommend picking up a copy, regardless of your interest in video games or design.
‘Flow’ is the “state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake”
Basically, it is an analysis of pure happiness and the idea of complete involvement with whatever activity you’re current doing.
I first became interested in this concept a few years ago while researching for a piece of coursework during my Masters. It’s a fascinating idea, and something that tends to just blow by many people without a second thought. The book examines flow from many different aspects of life including food, music and sex… Too much to consider for a blog post on game design, but the general idea of happiness and enjoyment are very relevant.
I feel it’s true that a great majority of us are unfulfilled with life. We’re inclined to look back and think that we’ve wasted a lot of time. I suppose it is natural in a way… There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, but the whole idea behind flow is enjoying something for its own sake, so my positive thinking advice for the day is to simply enjoy things while they last and try to forget about the end result; in years to come I may even be able to charge vast sums of money for advice like that. Seriously though, so many people talk endlessly about planning for the future, and in the process forget to enjoy whatever they are doing.
So thinking in terms of game design, we are trying to get our players enjoying the challenges of the game purely for their own sake. Although I understand that there are many completionists out there, and the feeling of moving ever closer to the 100% point does create its own flow, in a sense.
It’s easy to throw around phrases like ‘maintaining player engagement’, but it goes deeper. First of all, there is a difference between pleasure and enjoyment.
Pleasure is a feeling of contentment. It happens when a prior expectation has been met. ie. When something satisfies a pre-programmed need or desire. For example, it is pleasurable to sit in front of the TV with a glass of wine in the evening after a long day at work. You wouldn’t call this enjoyable as such… It could be considered more passive than enjoyment.
Enjoyment involves the idea of satisfying needs, but also goes a step further and includes a feeling of novelty and accomplishment. You have extended yourself and achieved something. The moment of winning a close tennis match would be enjoyable, as an example. That run up to the moment wouldn’t be pleasurable or enjoyable, as such, and that rush or buzz when the moment occurs would be something beyond a basic pleasure.
I tend to associate the pleasurable feeling with familiarity. You are comfortable in a way, but enjoyment is a step into the unknown and you look back and remember it as something that was new and has changed you.
When making games, we are trying to utilise both pleasure and enjoyment. We try to create a basic loop of gameplay; the standard ways in which someone plays the game. This creates the feeling of familiarity throughout, so that person becomes comfortable. For example, in an action adventure game, there is a common loop of movement, taking cover, aiming, shooting, movement. The game will then throw unexpected things in your face. These require additional engagement, but once done you get that raw feeling of accomplishment.
So thinking back to the original idea… Does this keep a player in flow and enjoying the game for its own sake? Not necessarily. If it was that simple then all games would engage all players regardless of how they are put together.
In my own opinion, the key is the overall arc of gameplay. You’ll find yourself replaying your favourite games over and over. These are the games that keep you in flow. You’ll remember each section and what comes next as you play through. You may dip in an out of specific sections or chapters. Stop and think, you are engaged in this game as a whole. You’re not just trying to get to end credits.
The game is keeping you in flow with an intricate balancing of pleasurable standard gameplay, and new and ‘attention grabbing’ events, even if you already expect them to occur, the most effective ones will still bring forward that sense of achievement.
Every aspect of a game contributes to this. The core gameplay, environment, story, art style and level design in particular. Flower by ThatGameCompany is a great example of an experimental game which has looked into keeping the player in that state of flow. A must play for anyone interested in this idea.
Game design is still very vague as a discipline in the industry to this day. It is about the minutiae, and I don’t believe it should be considered as too much of a science. Nevertheless, through a lot of trial and error, tweaks, and more importantly through observing emotions of players trying out your game, you can judge (at least roughly) how well your masterpiece keeps the audience in flow.