Flow, Games and User Experience – Part 1

The Flow ChannelWhen talking about games, sooner or later you will start talking about flow. And when talking about flow, you might either refer to a very general game flow, meaning that the player is concentrated on the game and not interrupted by anything starting from silly mechanics up to irritating thoughts about your boring job, or you might refer to a theory from a guy, whose name is barely pronounceable – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He invented the term “flow” that most of us link with the very easy diagram shown in this article.

Since I happened to write a thesis about Flow and User Experience in Serious Games I realized that this theory is not only a ground-breaking and much discussed academic phenomenon, but also something that is barely included in my personal working field, even though it should be.

But let’s start from the very beginning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist living in the United States. He is almost 80 years old and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. When he started his research in the 1970s he was surely not analyzing videogames, nor was he trying to invent complex theories. As a psychologist he simply tried to determine, what makes people happy.

For that, he interviewed people all over the world about their own happiness or special moments in life. There he found out, that there is this one special experience people describe a “state in which [they] are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that [they] will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it“.  He ends up calling this enjoyment “optimal experience” or as it is known nowadays “flow”. From then onwards he starts research on when and how these moments occur.

His results are somewhat logical; to sum it up, Flow occurs…

  • when activities are perceived to be challenging.
  • when people are fully concentrated on the task and they stop thinking of themselves as separated from the immediate activity.
  • when goals are clear and feedback is provided, whereas the content of the goal or the feedback is depending on the peoples interpretation.
  • when everything besides the activity becomes totally unimportant and people feel a moment of presence.
  • when loosing seems to be impossible.
  • when people lose fear or scruple and stop thinking about themselves.
  • when time perception is changed.
  • when activities are autotelic and people just do them for the sheer sake of doing it, not because of any result.

So much for the theoretical part – but in practice people are individuals, everyone has his perception of life, his own experiences and feelings and also his own definition of flow or an optimal experience. Flow is therefore not only something that can hardly be defined – but it is also something that is based on people’s own interpretation – and as we all know people’s interpretation may vary greatly.

So what does this tell us?

  1. First of all Flow in his original theory has quite nothing to do with videogames or User Experience.
  2. Second, Flow is something that happens to people and that can be described through some dimensions, but is not a defined state that can be measured through any common metrics.
  3. Third, Flow as an academic theory has never been approved in the last 30 years – so why should we bother?

Well, in the end Flow is an enjoyable state people strive for and games should be enjoyable – so we should skip the academic discussions and have a closer look at how Csikszentmihalyis theory can help us in the game development and especially in the User Experience Design.

Part II: Flow in Games