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[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.
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:
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.
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.