"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:
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.
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.
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.