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Gamification Dynamics: Flow and Art

April 10, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In the final installment of his series on Gamification Dynamics, Badgeville's Tony Ventrice puts the concept of flow under the microscope, sharing new research that provides a new window into the popular concept -- as well as examining what aspects of art appreciation translate well to games. The full series includes the original framing article as well as three prior examinations of dynamics: part 1, part 2, and part 3.]


When I was working on iPhone games, I spent a good deal of my time reading user reviews of virtually every successful game to grace the App Store. One thing stood out time and time again, and that was the word "addictive." It seemed to be the highest compliment imaginable. Granted, the audience wasn't the most erudite, but why this word? Isn't addiction a bad thing?

Once you played these games, the language started to make more sense. These "addictive" games had a way of completely absorbing your attention, they were both challenging and simple and had a way of preventing you from setting them down until your battery died.

What the customers were calling addiction is a common phenomenon in successful games and tends to go by the name of "flow" in the industry.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The term "flow" can be attributed to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher who built a career on the topic before video games had even been invented. In an interview, 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.

In his writings Csikszentmihalyi typically mentions the following prerequisites to flow:

  • Intrinsically rewarding
  • Clear unobstructed goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • Balance between ability level and challenge

To a game designer, these should not be surprising. In fact, these are pretty much textbook instructions to building any type of engagement, from a video game to teaching tricks to a dog.

They're so obvious, in fact, that most discussions of flow tend to focus on only the fourth point: Balance between ability level and challenge.

If you've ever seen flow diagramed, it probably looked like this:

A student named Jenova Chen -- who later went on to found Journey developer Thatgamecompany -- attracted a good deal of attention with his master's thesis, Flow in games, and an accompanying game, appropriately named Flow. Chen's focus was on dynamic difficulty adjustment, exploring the concept of player-controlled adjustment of game difficulty.

The two problems I have with defining flow as something that happens when difficulty is balanced is that it ignores flow that occurs in situations that have no difficulty curve, and it draws the conversation into the realm of general engagement, away from the hyper-engagement that the term flow was meant to discuss.

How does one explain the flow-inducing success of activities such as The Sims or Vegas slot machines -- activities that have no difficulty at all? The realization should be that "difficulty" is only one way to approach a more fundamental factor -- an important detail that may years of assumption may be causing us to overlook.


What if Csikszentmihalyi wasn't completely correct when he described flow as being a test of skill? His early subjects were artists performing tasks that would certainly seem difficult to an observer with no advanced talent in the field of painting.

Daniel Levitin, an accomplished music industry veteran, psychologist and neuroscientist, proposes in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything, be it chess, basketball, painting, writing or playing the guitar. This is a commonly-cited fact popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers.

Is it unreasonable to suppose that the experienced artists Csikszentmihalyi was observing had already been through countless hours of practice and that they did not consider their craft to be difficult at all? After enough practice, mastered actions are so automatic and effortless as to be nearly infallible. How likely is an experienced pianist to hit the wrong key, a professional basketball player to mis-dribble, or a professional painter to fail to anticipate how two colors will blend?

I would propose that, for masters (and even experienced aspirants on their way). the little details are not challenging, they're automatic; the brain has moved beyond technical challenge and onto a meta-problem. In the case of artists, the meta-problem is creating self-expression; in the case of athletes, the meta-problem is outplaying the competition. The brain is simultaneously engaged in two levels of constant activity.

  • One part of the brain is managing a stream of learned automatic choices.
  • Another part of the brain is focused on a stream of subjective, creative choices.

In any example of flow from games to art, to athletics, to writing, both aspects appear to be essential: the creative choices keep the experience pleasurable and fresh, while the undercurrent of automatic choices compels absolute focus and prevents the brain from wandering.

Corroboration for this model comes in the form of research into "choking" under pressure. Researchers have proven that the spectacular failure that occurs when an expert does fail can be traced to a change in focus from meta-objective to the automatic, implying that not only do these two levels of thought exist but that successful experts expend all of their conscious effort focused on the former.

Within the flow-research community there also appears to be some doubt with Csikszentmihalyi's balanced challenge-skill requirement. Researchers recognize that there might be attentional ambiguity when addressing the concepts of challenge and skill.

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Joe McIntosh
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Excellent piece. I need to go back and read these other articles.

Jorge Gonzalez Sanchez
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Great article.But there are games that did very un-intuitive stuff and didn't get burned by player frustration.

Sentinel is a case (maybe the manual explained the game). Braid too.

But now I know a sure-fire way to get rid of player frustration. Just make a modern-conflict war FPS set in some sandy contry. Thanks!

Kathy Sierra
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You start with a list of flow bullet points including *intrinsically rewarding*, then immediately claim this as, "pretty much textbook instructions to building any type of engagement, from a video game to teaching tricks to a dog.". Let's stop right there and back the hell up. The "textbook" instruction for teaching tricks to a dog is based on operant conditioning which means *extrinsic* rewards.

One more time: today's gamification is based almost entirely on operant conditioning (extrinsic reinforcement). That's what most animal training is based on. This is a massive part of the gap between gamification and *actual games*. If you do not fully understand the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic "rewards", I'm suspicious of the rest of your points.

But moving on, you then suggest that Mihaly's was somehow incorrect on the whole "skill" thing because, as you ask, "How does one explain the flow-inducing success of The Sims or Vegas slot machines?"

You might be mistaking ALL examples of "lost time" for actual flow, where Mihaly makes it clear that just because someone "zones out" in passive consumption mode, this does NOT mean they are actually IN flow. not all lost time = flow, and slot machine engagement is 100% explained by operant conditioning, on which it is based.

Mihaly was not "incorrect" on this, just making finer distinctions than you seem to be thinking about. And his distinctions were deeply, deeply important. (Also, there IS skill in The Sims, but I'll leave that for now). On the subject of passive consumption (you suggest YouTube watching as an example of flow): Mihaly had this to say in the original book:

"This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results for the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness... Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons -- such as the wish to flaunt one's status -- are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before."

No wonder most gamification proponents don't like Csikszentmihalyi (or they misunderstand Flow). He paints a very dark picture of what is, essentially, gamification.

Daniel Henuber
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Thank you so much for that.

As 'flow' becomes a trendy subject, it's important we not lose sight of what it means. It's the very nosecone of human experience; it's achieved rarely, and is always fleeting.

Intrinsic motivation is a key ingredient and cannot be glossed over. 'The thing I'm doing is important for its own sake, so therefore I am a part of something important right now.' That feeling, conscious or not, is part of the nebulous perfect emotional storm that is 'flow.' It can't--and, shouldn't--be achieved by essentially wasting time on closed compulsion loops like YouTube binges.

Bryan Ferris
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Just to make sure I understand correctly, you'd argue that people aren't entering flow in FarmVille, correct? What about Bejeweled?

I really like gamification, but based on what i know of flow and the paragraph you quoted I also like Csikszentmihalyi. I agree that we waste a great deal of time as he described, but I think that, when implemented properly, gamification could cause us to use that time in a useful way (if all of the sudden I'm getting the same satisfaction out of planting seeds that I am out of "flaunt(ing) one's status", I'm no longer wasting time am I?).

Tony Ventrice
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Kathy, first, this article is only one in a series dedicated to understanding games and gamification. The whole point of taking such a broad perspective was to not overlook many of the aspects that current gamification overlooks. In short, the article is not about "today's gamification" at all, but the potential for gamification. Second, it is entirely possible to train a dog without treats. Dogs crave approval, direction and a sense of purpose. Cesar Millan built a career on breaking this misconception. Third, completely non-interactive experiences do provide an interesting subject for exploration, but they're not the topic of this article. Perhaps youtube can be better explained by this other phenomenon than flow but I suspect there is a very real possibility that flow and zoning out are more closely related than you'd like to admit. Finally, subjectively judging the very thing you are studying obstructs the goal of finding truth. If you apply moralizations to your definition, the meaning of the definition will vary inconsistently across individuals to the point of meaninglessness.

Kathy Sierra
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@Tony -- Your post said "textbook instruction..." for teaching tricks to dogs. Nearly every "textbook" on trick training is based on *some* form of operant conditioning, which doesn't have to mean *rewards* but ALWAYS means EXtrinsic reinforcement. Cesar is unique in that he uses a combination of extrinsic reinforcement and (though it's controversial) apparently some things he describes as intrinsically rewarding for dogs. (I train horses, not dogs, so I'm not an expert on his work). But no matter how popular that guy is, he is far from "textbook". He's the exception. My point is that I think you may completely misunderstand the phrase "intrinsic motivation" if you associate it with dog trick training. Behavior achieved through *negative* reinforcement (meaning, no reward but the removal of a negative stimulus -- much of what Cesar does and most other "whisperers") is STILL at the opposite end of the motivation continuum from "intrinsically motivating".

"Perhaps youtube can be better explained by this other phenomenon than flow but I suspect there is a very real possibility that flow and zoning out are more closely related than you'd like to admit."

This has nothing to do with what *I* "like to admit"; I was quoting Csikszentmihalyi, since you were discussing Flow and his work.

"If you apply moralizations to your definition, the meaning of the definition will vary inconsistently across individuals to the point of meaninglessness."

I am not sure if that was directed at me or Mihaly, but I'm personally MORE than willing to apply subjective judgement to this topic. But I understand that most people involved in the marketing of gamification have no interest in doing that, understandably. The stated goals of virtually every gamification vendor (including your employer) is some form of "drive behavior". When the behavior being "driven" is to encourage people to do things that are KNOWN to be unhealthful... when gamification vendors/speakers/consultants are actively celebrating the ability to exploit known brain flaws/weaknesses/holes that operate *below* conscious awareness to "drive behavior" people wouldn't otherwise WANT to do is, well, hard to remain neutral on that unless you're an active participant.

Jacob Germany
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@Kathy Thanks for saying all that! I felt compelled to say something, but now I don't have to. Very well put argument.

I was nearly gagging at the mention of Farmville and slot machines as inducing "flow".

Nathan Mates
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One problem I have with certain games is that their difficulty is based on a linear progression through the game -- witness your diagram on page 1. One can get better and be in the sweet spot, or 'the zone'. Then, I don't play a game for a week or so -- life happens. If I pick up the game, by its progression, I'm expected to pull off a 15-button combo within 1.72 seconds. But, my fingers can't pull that off. Do I restart and re-train? Or get frustrated?

How should your diagram be updated when there's a week (or month or year) gap in playing? I know a lot of 'hardcore' people rag on Oblivion/Skyrim for having a "go here, dummy" mapmarker for the quest, but I find that incredibly helpful after a gap in playing, the mapmarkers help me get back in and restarted quickly.

Raymond Grier
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I love the analysis of slot machine player mentality.

Vytautas Katarzis
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Good read and interesting questions.