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Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design

March 22, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[Microsoft Studios user experience researcher Sean Baron takes a look into the often discussed, but rarely concisely defined, concept of Flow, and offers a succinct definition and suggestions for implementing conditions to help players get into the zone.]

You sit down, ready to get in a few minutes of gaming. Hours pass and you suddenly become aware that you're making ridiculous faces and moving like a contortionist while trying to reach that new high score. You ask yourself: Where did the time go? When did I sprain my ankle?

Maybe you didn't sprain your ankle, but if you consider yourself a gamer, you've probably ended up in similar situations. They happen because you've reached a critical level of engagement with whatever game you're playing.

More often than not, these types of gaming sessions occur when you're playing a great game. If game developers were able to characterize and add design considerations that facilitate these engaged states they'd create more enjoyable and better selling games.

Luckily, these heightened levels of engagement have been studied by psychologists. They even have a name for it: Cognitive Flow. In what follows, I will introduce Flow and the four characteristics of tasks that promote it. For each characteristic, I will provide some basic psychological perspectives and relevant recommendations for game developers.

Introduction

In the 1970s a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi experimentally evaluated Flow. He found that a person's skill and the difficulty of a task interact to result in different cognitive and emotional states. When skill is too low and the task too hard, people become anxious. Alternatively, if the task is too easy and skill too high, people become bored. However, when skill and difficulty are roughly proportional, people enter Flow states (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Flow, boredom, and anxiety as they relate to task difficulty and user skill level. Adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

While in these states, people experience:

  1. Extreme focus on a task.
  2. A sense of active control.
  3. Merging of action and awareness.
  4. Loss of self-awareness.
  5. Distortion of the experience of time.
  6. The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.

Csikszentmihalyi also outlined four characteristics found in tasks that drive an equilibrium between skill and difficulty, thus increasing the probability of Flow states. Specifically, these are tasks that:

  1. Have concrete goals with manageable rules.
  2. Demand actions to achieve goals that fit within the person's capabilities.
  3. Have clear and timely feedback on performance and goal accomplishment.
  4. Diminish extraneous distraction, thus facilitating concentration.

It is these four task characteristics that game developers should consider if they want to increase the likelihood of causing Flow states in gamers playing their games. I will now go into more detail about each characteristic.


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Comments


Nicholas Muise
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Thanks for putting this together Sean. Flow is one of the major topics which keeps coming up in our discussions at work.

We talk about Arkham City quite often, specifically how extraneous information can inhibit flow and break concentration. An example that came up this morning was how when you first enter Gotham and retrieve your gear, you are immediately bombarded by information: radio chatter from unknown sources, visible riddler markings, hud info, camera pan to courthouse, visible groups of enemies. I thought it was a bit overwhelming and it broke my flow and high level of engagement (I was riding the excitement of just getting my bat suit). I just sat there taking it all in for a minute or two, trying to get my bearings and process this world and everything in it. Before I even stepped off that first tower I tried to find an option to turn off the radio in the option menu in an attempt to limit the amount of information I was being bombarded with.

E McNeill
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In some games, filtering lots of extraneous information can be a key part of the game and a flow task itself. The real issue, which you describe perfectly, is drastic changes in information density.

Bart Heijltjes
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Especially for people in the creative industries, I'd also suggest Csikszentmihalyi's book Creativity, which deals with achieving Flow in your own creative process.

You know, that thing that happens when in the evening you start coding, writing or drawing something and suddenly the sun's coming up outside.

Jason Carter
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And (if you are an indie like me) you realize: "Oh shit I have to be at work in an hour!"

It makes for long days. But that feeling is the best in the world. (During programming, not after)

Dustin Chertoff
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For those interested in applying this to educational/serious games, I suggest reading the following paper:

"CREATING FLOW, MOTIVATION, & FUN IN LEARNING GAMES," which you can find at http://www.goodgamesbydesign.com/?p=61

Also, don't forget about reading the Masters thesis by Jenovah Chen (of flOw, Flower, and Journey fame), where he talks about how player defined control of advancement through a game can be used to achieve optimal flow.

There's lots of stuff out there already on flow states and virtual environments. There are hundreds of papers on this topic for those interested in learning more.

davinder singh
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thanks for the link , really helpful

E McNeill
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Regarding your Characteristic #4... Could you send a note to the Xbox guys that Achievements should really not be required? They're often just the sort of extraneous distractors we'd all like to avoid.

Dustin Chertoff
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The problem is there is this thing called "fiero," which roughly translates to "triumph over a difficult task." Certain game achievements represent really difficult, extra content that can be very useful for putting players into highly directed periods of flow. Now, if the achievement is distracting you from completing the main portion of the game in that you cannot chose to skip the achievement until a later time, there is a problem. But if you can return to achievement hunting after completing the game (i.e. replaying the game), then what's the problem?

E McNeill
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I know fiero. Arguably, that feeling of fiero should exist regardless of whether the game validates you, and the formal Achievements are just acting as extrinsic motivators (which kills intrinsic motivation). But on top of that, some games are really not about fiero-hunting or are deeply opposed to extrinsic motivators. All I ask is that Achievements not be *required*. You can still use them when they are appropriate, but in many cases they are not.

Rob B
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Im confused, in what way are achievements 'required'?

Joshua Darlington
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Thanks for the reading list!

Is anyone developing predictive analytics tools for dynamic modeling of player intentionality and affect?

Alex Jenkins
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How can we get education in this form? I would love to see this kind of research put into good use in making learning experiences.

Bart Stewart
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This set of observations and suggestions follow from the viewpoint that fun is defined as challenge-based achievement. The first point -- "concrete goals with manageable rules [should be] achievable" -- comes directly from this achievement-focused mindset.

Obviously most games are built around achievement, so the ideas in this article are applicable. But that's not the only kind of fun. There's also exploratory play.

Rather than being outwardly focused on the accomplishment of several well-defined simple conditions that together yield some concrete result, exploratory play is about player-directed perception -- it's about poking at things on your own terms to gather knowledge about how they work, and organizing that knowledge during play to build personally satisfying models of ideas or feelings.

Wandering around on or inside a Minecraft world is one example of this style. The "whoops, I should have been at work two hours ago" flow experience of playing Minecraft like this doesn't come from being told where to go and what to do. It comes from Minecraft being designed to reward poking at different bits of the world when and where the player feels like it to see what happens and think about why it happens. I would also argue that what gave Civilization its "I'll just play one more turn" addictiveness was not concrete, developer-assigned tasks (as that term is used in this article), but was instead its exploratory, player-directed "see what happens next" design.

This kind of play isn't everyone's idea of fun. But it's incredibly satisfying for some gamers.

And the distinction matters because while exploration and achievement are not equivalent play motivations, the "flow" experience can come from both kinds of activity. Maybe your game doesn't need exploratory fun, and structuring your game around concrete task-resolution goals like headshots and leveling and competitive score-keeping is sufficient. But if you do care about helping your game appeal to exploration-oriented gamers, and you take the advice from this article that all goals of play must be doled out as concrete individual tasks with clearly defined and easily perceived resolution conditions, you'll wind up unnecessarily excluding Explorers from the flow experience. Why do that if you don't have to?

Instead, consider building enough dynamic features into your gameworld and the characters in it that it's possible for players to get into a zone of just interacting with its changing elements and seeing what happens.

There may be good technical or time/financial reasons for not enabling exploratory flow alongside achievement-seeking flow. But it's still a valid way of experiencing flow in a game, even if it's not the focus of this article.

Joshua Darlington
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I was thinking along the same lines. There is a 90 minute Basic Rest Activity Cycle in human consciousness where people assimilate information, process it, and then act on it. The same player can be expected to switch back and forth between exploration and achievement accordingly.

Analysis of aggregate game data can identify patterns that indicate general user intent (exploration, achievement, etc etc) and can be part of dynamic balancing AI used to max flow/fun.

gormee kornell
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I totally agree, I am an exploration gamer myself and find that while I do like specific goals with clear feedback I don't necessarily need it to achieve flow. To mention Arkham City again, I just found myself wandering around the grim, derelict environment looking for hidden items or easter eggs. Finding Croc's lair gave me immense satisfaction and for me validated all the exploration I'd been doing seemingly without a purpose. Made me smile that..

Rob B
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I think you have an exaggerated view of how concrete the article is being about tasks. I dont believe it is saying all tasks you can do have to be concrete but that the tasks available are well defined. (It does after all refer to Skyrim which is hardly concrete in the way you should play it.)
Exploratory game-play is about players creating their own tasks and when considered like that most of this section of the article still applies.

From the bullet points,
Most exploratory games still have defined tasks out there, you can just do them on your own time. Calling up the task information becomes more important than ever because there could be days or weeks before you decide to do them. Though constant cues would obviously be a huge irritation, that gets covered in Characteristic 4.
Point two and three are less likely to occur in exploratory games but are still worth noting for any occasion you do wish to have a specific task available.
Point four is just as important in exploration games, it should always be intuitive or require some small well integrated tutorial to introduce new mechanics. Miss this and in linear gaming you can cripple progress in exploratory games you can end up needlessly restricted by your lack of knowledge.
The final point is more relevant to exploration than it is to linear games. Someone playing minecraft will likely want to keep building their little corner of the world in to an ever grander creation. Someone in Skyrim will want to reach new heights, fight greater creatures, learn more epic lore. Its that growing knowledge, experience and story that makes exploration worthwhile.

Michael Joseph
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Another attempt at a recipe for making McGames?

Articles like these show just how cynical game developers can be.

I find this ever increasing industry focus on maximizing "fun" in games to be quite insidious.

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Rob B
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There is nothing cynical about examining the components of good games, quite the opposite in-fact. If you dont recognise and learn about these foundations to good game design you will be doomed to repeating mistakes and make bad games.

Now I will say that the article doesnt cover the fact that knowing when to break flow can be as important as the flow itself (and indeed in many cases flow is entirely undesirable.) You still have to know about it to make that evaluation though, and to just dismiss it all is foolish.

Incidentally this is not an increasing focus. Its an increase in describing the nature of what is happening because games have increased in complexity a great deal, but games have been made to maximise this kind of thing from the dawn of gaming both to good and bad effect.

Dustin Chertoff
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@Michael

Are you saying you prefer to play games that are not fun? If so, I suggest you play some very early arcade style games that were designed to make you fail so much that you spent several hundred dollars in quarters getting enough skill to lose half-way through the game.Why shouldn't designers maximize fun?

@Joshua

What you are seeing now is an attempt to understand WHY the things over the past worked and had appeal. You can look up during the day and see that the Sun is bright and appreciate what that means, but you can also study WHY the Sun gives off light. It's the same thing with these psychological studies related to games. Decades of games building upon tested ideas have evolved the industry from 8-bit arcade games to immersive 3D environments. But understanding WHY an 8-bit arcade game can be as engaging as the immersive 3D environment leads us to a better understanding of human behavior.

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Michael Joseph
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@Dustin RE: "Are you saying you prefer to play games that are not fun?"

Fun is particular to every person. This article isn't about "fun." How can it be? As Joshua alluded, the subject is impossibly broad.

I have fun (or find enjoyment or take pleasure) in studying arachnids or astronomy or reading science fiction, philosophy, history or many other things that others may not find stimulating or fascinating or thought provoking at all.

If this article is about "fun" it's talking about a very specific and narrowly defined notion of "fun". That kind of "fun" is akin to "I know the series '24' is crap but I can't stop watching it because it's engineered in such a way as to string me along and manipulate my emotions in a dishonest way (caring little about authenticity) sort of 'fun.'" So Dustin, if that's your definition of "fun" too, then yes I am against "fun" games. Next time please don't insult others with such a question.

This article suggests people who find themselves spending hours playing a game are likely playing a "great" game. That statement is said in a matter of fact way and I think that is a leading statement that is pulling people by the nose. The next logical fallacy people are likely to assume after reading such a statement is that a great game is one that the majority of players can't pull themselves away from.

Fact is, different strokes for different folks. One can hardly claim that a game is great because 1 person out of 100 couldn't pull themselves away from it nor is it necessarily great just because 80 out of 100 people can't pull themselves away from it.

By and large, when product sellers are trying to pyscho-analyze their customers, watch out. They're not trying to create "great" products unless by "great" they mean big sellers. That puts them in a mentality that is ready to sacrifice quality for profit. And for the record, I have nothing against people trying to earn a living, I only object to insincere / stealth / deceptive methodology and marketing.

And people should know who they are. We can't afford people who think they're doing real good when they're not.

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Michael Joseph
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@Jacob Rummelhart

Striving for elegant user interface design is one thing, but this article goes beyond that and focuses on how to achieve a state of "flow" in the user. Thus "flow" is presented as a design goal and attributes are described for achieving that goal. If "flow" is a design goal then it must influence design. This is the beginning and the end of the problem.

I think this is the wrong mentality to have when designing games. And I don't mean this just from a purist's perspective either. I think the entire concept is unweildly and foolish. It's as if an engineer took apart the human heart and used a description of it's anatomy to inform others how to find love.

Jacob Germany
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I think that there might be a misunderstanding as to the concept of "Flow", judging by the above comments.

Flow is certainly not a social-game/metric/skinner box means of manipulating users, nor can I imagine many scenarios in which it *wouldn't* be preferable to the alternatives.

Instead of thinking about it in terms of a skinner-box-esque "tricking consumers", it would be much more akin to refining the taste of a dish. Is "taste" subjective? Yes. Can it vary from person to person? Yes. Can you still pretty accurately assess the quality of a dish, and utilize specific techniques to enhance enjoyment of the consumer? Of course. Simply because a concept like "taste" or, in this case, "fun"/"enjoyment" is subjective, we need not assume that it is consequently immeasurable or mysterious and illusive.

Meanwhile, it would take a "Game Design Challenge" style of brain storming for me to imagine a situation in which a designer would *want* to avoid what Flow achieves as a tool. How often would a designer want to offer an exceptionally repetitive, boring, mundane task? How often would a designer want to create a game meant to be so difficult that it frustrates its players? These aren't simply "different design philosophies". These are, for nearly all cases, outcomes we should strive to avoid at all costs.

Perhaps the article simply detailed "flow" in a way that was not fully communicated to everyone reading it, I'm not sure. But the concept is not a trick, not a means of creating "cookie cutter" games, nor is it a philosophy that should be treated with such suspicion. Quite the opposite, I assumed it was rather obvious when I first learned about it years ago, and I imagine most others would agree once the concept is communicated fully.

Lauren White
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Thanks for writing this article. It should be emphasized that cognitive flow is not limited to FPSs, RPGs, MMOs, or other human (or human-like) portrayals in games. I would argue that flow is also present in casual puzzle video games. These games tend to lure the player in for long periods of time, even though the same tasks are being performed over and over. Example: Tetris, Sudoku, Bejeweled, etc.

As far as how learning or education could enter into the picture: once the player achieves a state of cognitive flow in the game, they are essentially engrossed in the content and mechanics of the game. Whether that content is teaching spatial shape orientation (e.g., Tetris), or resource, task, and character management/decision-making (e.g., RPGs), players are learning.

Dustin Chertoff
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Here is the thing with learning and flow: If you are in flow, then by definition your skill level perfectly matches the difficulty level. Therefore, a flow state means you are no longer learning, but have instead mastered the necessary skills. You need a consistent adjustment of content difficulty to address this issue.

To put it another way, a flow state isn't the desired goal of an educational/learning game. Rather, you want to player to constantly be on the verge of a flow state, this way you ensure learning progress continues. Easier said than done of course. :)

Jason Carter
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@Dustin: Not sure I agree with you there. You can master the skills for the current time at which you need them, but such is with tetris as mentioned above. Your skills improve as you play, being able to store rapidly the shapes coming up and plan your moves 2-3 moves ahead for instantaneous drops, etc those kind of things may come DURING flow, as in, you learned how to turn blocks and drop them in level 1, you learned how to piece everything together in level 2 which is a little faster, and you begin honing those skills as the game gets faster. (And as you play more). This is an evolution of skill acquired during the flow. I can say I've gotten better at tetris during a game in which I was immensely immersed.

So I would argue that if you are in flow that doesn't necessarily mean you aren't learning anymore. (To say that would imply you have mastered every aspect of the game.) From what I read here, flow simply means that you have the skills for the current skill requirement of the game and does not imply that you aren't learning more, but attempts to adjust difficulty as you learn those skills.

Or vice versa, the game increases it's difficulty and you are forced to learn those skills quickly and you climb back into a flow state. (But i don't think this is always necessarily the case)

Jacob Germany
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@Dustin The area in which flow happens, by definition, is the only area in which learning can occur. Quite the opposite of a "no longer learning" state. If you are in the "too easy" stage of the graph, you have fully mastered the skill set. If you are in the "too frustrated" stage, there is some impediment to growth and learning. If you are in the area of flow, you have just the right amount of failure to learn from, and success to motivate you to continue learning.

sai yerragolla
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Wonderful article.. brought me a real joy in reading

Chris Crowell
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Great article, will be passing it along. A distinction I feel is important is regarding your use of the term 'teaching' the player. "Teaching" implies that the game will impose a very structured experience with no choices, such as a mandatory tutorial. This has been the norm for a very long time. I am sure you would agree that the real goal is for the player to LEARN. I always try to allow the player to interact with the game intuitively so that they can feel that they taught themselves, which makes them feel smart. I do this via many of the methods you note in your article, most importantly clear feedback as they experiment with a limited choice of actions. However, I have seen a few tutorials recently that make the structured learning actions fit seamlessly into the storytelling in a very natural way, which at least removes the sense of the game treating me like a dummy.
thanks.

Josiah Blaisdell
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I love that while I was reading the section titled:

"We have limits on our information processing and attentional capabilities."

There were literally 5 adds begging for my attention.

Kathy Sierra
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@Dustin: " If you are in flow, then by definition your skill level perfectly matches the difficulty level. Therefore, a flow state means you are no longer learning, but have instead mastered the necessary skills." Flow (Mihaly's version) does NOT require "perfect match" of skill and challenge, only that if the mismatch is too great in either direction (or rather the perception of mismatch) then flow becomes much less likely. Many game designers I have worked with try to keep the challenge running just a little *ahead* of current skill, or at least alternate between a little too challenging and a little too skilled.As for learning, only *some* aspects of learning are incompatible with flow (though they are absolutely essential, so I agree with you on that). But learning -- or rather *actual improvement* -- requires a mix of challenging, effortfull, conscious work ("deliberate practice"), combined with muscle-memory drill (low challenge, high repetition), and most importantly -- continued motivation. Without the ability to spend time in flow, learning becomes all pain no pleasure. A good educator or coach artfully balances the arduous struggle with the less cognitively stressful times where you get to actually USE what you learned. So, flow still matters deeply to learning even if it is not the optimal state for the place where the biggest improvements happen.

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Thomas Nocera
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If I may offer this prediction: Coming in a next gen console game will be invisible, seamless and highly interactive processes designed and lab tested to keep gamers playing within their own unique "flow envelope" leading to more of the kind of game play experience where one loses their sense of time. The technology will utilize the camera in the console (or the camera already built into a pc or tablet) which will be linked to an imbedded software track running linearly within the game. The camera is tweaked to "read" and instantly interpret the gamers' facial expressions - driven by algorithms - which will trigger subtle, or not so subtle, game modifications - for example: increasing or, slowing the pace of the action; scaling up or down the difficulty of tasks, the moment a gamers' expression indicates the onset of boredom, or begins to show signs of becoming frustrated; or, provides new stimulus as gamers approach a desired state of rapt engagement (riding the flow). All the key components for automating this sort of game play flow- enhancement technology is already developed and just waiting to be implemented.


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