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Flow Tasks
by Alexander Kerezman on 04/21/10 10:20:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


"Flow" is an interesting concept, both as a designer and as a gamer. My first encounter with it was a few pages in Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Then I came across it again in Jenova Chen's thesis, "Flow in Games."

Paraphrased, the "flow state" is that period of time when you are completely focused on a task without distraction. In games, it requires a level of challenge for the player that sits in that sweet spot between anxiety and boredom, juuuust outside the player's comfort zone. It requires the player to reach a little bit beyond themselves and try a little harder, but they should never doubt that the goal in question is within the realm of possibility.

That ultimate focus is the kind of experience in games that is rewarding in and of itself, which makes it absolutely worth pursuing as designers. But here's where I run into a problem or two.

Hypothetically, any game can possibly induce flow. You could even say a board game or a card game can create flow in a player, if there's a period of time where they are absolutely focused (as long as it's flow and not anxiety, as it is for me when playing Power Grid with my family).

But saying that isn't very helpful towards implementing new kinds of flowing gameplay. Which brings me to my problem statement:

Some kinds of gameplay are more likely to induce flow than others. Assuming that's the case, what do these "flow tasks" look like and what criteria do they satisfy?

In The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell lists four criteria required for flow:

  • Clear goals
  • No distractions
  • Immediate feedback
  • Continous challenge

So flow tasks aren't simply single actions. They are sustained activities toward a clear goal with no other distractions. Flow tasks are going to take up quite a bit of time.

But while that is a good lens to evaluate gameplay with, it's not terribly helpful for trying to create flowing gameplay from the ground up.

Jesper Juul at his site Half-Real defines one of flow's traits as "a challenging activity that requires skills." If you look up "flow (psychology)" on Wikipedia, you'll probably see this image:

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level.

We see flow described as the state where high skill meets high challenge. But that tells us what we already know!

The real question, then, is skill. If flow requires great skill to meet great challenge, what does that level of skill look like?


For a while, I couldn't get a clue. So I let the matter sit for a while in the back of my mind. But recently, while I was staying with a relative, I had the opportunity to play Forza Motorsport 3.

A visually impressive racing game.

What's more, I got to play it using the steering wheel peripheral. On top of being an extremely pretty game, Forza Motorsport 3 did an impressive job of inducing the flow state. Turn 10 really nailed the intricate physics of race driving in this game (which pretty much boils down to "how to take corners"). It tapped my inner car geek.

While playing it, though, I noticed something peculiar. Because I was using the steering wheel, there is a greater range of movement when turning. You can turn a little bit, or you can turn a lot.

I could tell when I was in flow or not. I could tell because when I was not flowing, I would turn the wheel erratically and often overcorrect myself. But when I was flowing - when I was completely focused - my corrections on the wheel were smaller and more precise.

This intrigued me. The physics in Forza were such that small errors in a turn could mean the difference between 1st and 2nd place, which can be the case in real racing. Knowing that, I would work a little harder to have fewer errors, increasing my skill to meet the challenge.


So is that what a flow task looks like? Is the spectrum of skill in flow tasks such that 1) small corrections will immediately improve performance, while 2) small imperfections in performance will have a visible impact?

If that's the case, that kind of criteria can be used to inform any number of game designs. Racing, platforming, shooting, even stealth - if you can build a wide spectrum of skill into gameplay where even minute changes matter, you may have a better chance at inducing flow in the player.

That's the idea, anyway.

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Chad Wagner
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Has anyone ever achieved a state of Flow with Mirror's Edge?

It certainly seems set up to induce the state -- and has many of the elements you describe. However, for me, the unclarity of exactly how to proceed turned it in to an exercise in continual failure. It seems like, if I memorized each level, that it could become flow-like (as actual Parkour appears) -- but then where would the challenge be? You'd think it would be in execution of what you know should be done.

It seems like they were constantly trying to balance the auto-help features of the game, with the challenging features of the game (so that you would end up with the right feel of possibly making it through a section on the first go, but still being appropriately difficult when you already know how to go).

That pattern reminds me of old Amiga Psygnosis games like Blood Money and Shadow of the Beast. Flow was definately there for me, but coupled with tons of memorization. Many modern games seem to be coupling the flow with dynamic challenges that allow you to succeed without memorization (I'm thinking specifically of Geometry Wars here). Although Forza certainly benefits from memorization. Perhaps that is one path to "clear goals," albeit a less refined one. Is that a potential benefit to the "backtracking" that is often described as an artificial game lengthener?

Glenn Storm
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It really is worth going to the source for the idea of Flow. Csikszentmihalyi's other works expand the idea, but this is the version I recommend often for its accessibility:

This book in particular is a fast read and elaborates the concept well, allowing you to see how Flow is more a result of perspective than choice or direction of activity; that nearly any activity can lead to Flow. It was easier for me to see what it is through Csikszentmihalyi's examples and specific elaboration of his research.

(And I've touched on the concept in my own blog posts in relation to experience studies, if you're interested to see more of my take on it in detail)

Alexander Kerezman
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@Chad: For Mirror's Edge, even if you manage to get through an entire sequence without memorization, you can't tell how well you did because you're not in competition with anybody. There's no immediate feedback for tasks that require skills. You might've saved a second doing a wall jump onto the floor below rather than dropping down, but all you've preserved is your internal sense of speed. There's no other feedback - it's not like anyone's racing you.

As for Forza, the key element in its gameplay is "how to take turns." Taking corners is the crux of racing. Knowing that, you don't really need to memorize tracks on the first try to be successful. You can trust that the track will lead you to the finish line, so all you need to worry about is taking each turn as they come. In fact, racing games in general are pretty great at creating flow because each race is a sustained, challenging activity that requires skills with immediate feedback and no distractions. Forza does that formula one better by allowing for a broad spectrum of skill in the racing physics.

@Glenn: I can't help but hesitate a little on that suggestion. While the psychology of flow has been explained in a variety of ways, very few interpretations provide helpful suggestions for game design beyond mere generalities. Still, focusing my understanding of flow may help me expand on this idea of "flow tasks," so maybe I'll pick it up. If I have the money.

Samuel Wissler
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You said it man. I got Mirror's Edge with high hopes for some flow-y goodness, but alas, no joy. I completely agree that in story mode it was too hard to tell where to go and that ruined good continuous running. I also feel that they game made a lot of the tricks that would speed you up too hard to find. I had to learn it all through replays of time trials. Lastly, the camera animation was too jerky. Any vertical movement had these really wild camera motions that damaged the feeling of speed and flow for me.


My two biggest/favorite examples of flow games are TRIBES and Wipeout XL. Why these two games? Both of them involved moving very fast and very smoothly, and in order to achieve that you needed to be pretty good at the game (challenge). The thing that really helped it was that the game's feedback helped to reinforce the flow feeling. When you were doing well the camera was really smooth, and you were going fast. In addition, the sound also created a sort of whooshing noise that added a feeling of speed to the process.

In case people are unfamiliar with those games the mechanics involved in Wipeout XL were simple hover car races. The key to getting the flow feeling (imo) was to disable weapons and just race.

In TRIBES, a FPS, the key was learning how to 'ski'. Skiing was a bug where if you jumped down a hill you would gather speed. On the way up the hill you would use your jetpack to maintain that speed, while gaining height. By repeating this process successfully you could reach amazing speed and height.

I think the key to getting flow is to create a game where you have a strong sense of motion, but instead of a realistic jarring motion, it instead smooths out as it speeds up.