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The recipe for flow experience

June 25, 2009

Yesterday I played a simple Tetris-based game almost all night. Now I am a bit sleepy, but it was worth for it. I succeeded to beat my opponent’s score and I can still taste the victory – nammn. The designer of the game that I played managed to engage me and focus my attention on the game events until I reached my goal. I was in the Zone, I mean in Flow and that inspired me to write this post and revisit my thoughts about flow. In fact, I am in flow again. Sometimes even writing throws me into the Zone. Is that normal? The answer is yes – flow theory describes a universal model of engagement and flow can be experienced in variety of settings as well as in variety of levels.

Back to the games. The aim of learning game design is to create so interesting experience that it holds player’s attention as long and as intensely as possible. Imagine your previous gaming experience when some game totally captured your attention, when the time seemed to fly, when you didn’t have any intrusive thoughts during playing, and it felt so rewarding that you wanted to experience it again and again – can you still taste the flow?

Let’s dive deeper and define the building blocks of flow experience.  The elements of flow can be divided into three groups: Flow antecedents, flow state, and flow consequences. I will explain here the flow antecedents that can be used in design to create flow experiences.

Flow framework

Flow framework

When player’s goals are clear he can more easily stay focused on the learning tasks. It is good practice to provide a clear main goal at the beginning of the game. The main goal should be divided into sub-goals and provide them at an appropriate pace in order to create feelings of success. If the goals seem too challenging, the probability to experience flow is low.

The main purpose of the feedback is to inform player about his performance and progression toward the goals. In the illustrated framework, the feedback dimension is divided into cognitive feedback and immediate feedback. Immediate feedback keeps the player focused. If player has to wait long before he can realize what effect his action caused, he will become distracted and loose the focus on the task. Additionally, the delayed feedback may arise interpretation problems and in the worst-case even lead to misconceptions. The cognitive feedback relates to the cognitive problem solving – it is included because it provides the account for learning and cognitive immersion. Cognitive feedback aims to stimulate player to reflect on his experiences and tested solutions in order to further develop his mental models. In other words, it focuses player’s attention on information that is relevant for learning objectives.

The playability antecedent is included to replace Csikszentmihalyi’s action-awareness merging dimension, which is problematic in the learning game context. This replacement is reasonable, because according to Csikszentmihalyi, all flow inducing activities become spontaneous and automatic, which is not desirable from a learning point of view. In contrast, the principles of experiential and constructive learning approaches emphasize that learning is an active and conscious knowledge construction process. It is noteworthy that reflection is not always a conscious action by a player. However, only when a player consciously processes his experiences can he make active and aware decisions about his playing strategies and thereby form a constructive hypothesis to test. Thus, a distinction between activities related to learning and controlling the game should be made. This means that controlling the game should be spontaneous and automatic, but the educational content related to a player’s tasks should be consciously processed and reflected.

Generally, the aim of an learning game is to provide students with challenges that are balanced with their skill level. Furthermore, challenges should be related to the main task so that flow experience is possible. When both the task and the use of the artefact are complex, then the artefact and the task may detract from the player’s attention. In fact, bad playability decreases the likelihood of experiencing task-based flow because the player has to sacrifice attention and other cognitive resources to the inappropriate activity. Because the information processing capacity of working memory is limited, all possible resources should be available for relevant information processing (the main task) rather than for the use of the game controls. Thus, the aim of the user interface design of games is to support the shift from cognitive interaction to fluent interaction. In an ideal situation, the controls of the game are transparent and allow the player to focus on higher order tasks.

The challenge dimension can be explained with three-channel model of flow. Challenges and skills that are theoretically the most important dimensions of experience are represented on the axes of the model. The letter P represents a person playing for example snooker. At the beginning (P1), the player has only a little knowledge about snooker and can only perform basic shots. However, the player enjoys the activity (is occasionally in flow) because he feels that the difficulty is just right for his rudimentary skills. While training his basic shots, the player’s skills are bound to improve, and he will feel bored (P2) performing such shots. Or he might notice that playing against an opponent is still too hard and he will realize that there are much greater challenges than performing basic shots individually. His poor performance will cause feelings of anxiety (P3).

Three-channel model

Extended three-channel model of flow (modified from Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

Boredom and anxiety are negative experiences that motivate the player to strive for the flow state. If the player is bored (P2), he has to increase the challenge he is facing. The player can set a more difficult goal that matches his skills. For example, he could play against an appropriate opponent that he can barely win against in order to get back to the flow state (P4). In contrast, if the player feels anxiety (P3), he must increase his skills in order to get back to the flow state (P4). The player could, for example, develop his playing strategy and train to perform safety shots. In general, it can be said that flow emerges in the space between anxiety and boredom. The flow channel can be extended by providing some guidance to the player, or by providing the possibility of solving problems collaboratively. Thus, the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962) is added to the original model. For example, in the snooker case, the player could ask for help from more proficient players to help him to develop his cue technique and playing strategy.

The model shows that flow is a linear channel where both P1 and P4 represent situations where the player is in the flow state. Although both situations are equally enjoyable, P4 is more complex because the challenges involved and skills required are greater. Neither situations P1 or P4 are stable states, because now and then the player tends to either feel boredom or anxiety, which motivates him to strive for the flow state in order to feel enjoyment again. In conclusion, this dynamic feature explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. From the point of view of learning activities, the three-channel model of flow has an important role in that it represents how the process of flow might develop through a single activity. The challenge of the game design is to keep the player in a flow state by increasing the skill level of the game while the skill level of the player increases in order to maximize the impact of them.

Sense of control clearly relates to challenge-skill balance dimension. Csikszentmihalyi has stated that sense of control refers to possibility rather than to actuality of the control. It can be said that a person senses when he can develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error close to zero, which makes the experience enjoyable. For example, a rookie snooker player can train hard and dream about perfect skills. However, unconsciously he knows that he cannot ever reach such skill level, but still the illusion, a dream of it, lives and motivates the player to work hard towards his goals, his dreams.

It is important to notice that the flow experience usually occurs when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Supporting the flow experience to lead to states of enjoyment does not require educational gaming to be easy and effortless. On the contrary, educational games should stretch a player’s mind to its limits in his effort to overcome worthwhile challenges. This nature of flow supports the premise of using flow as a one design approach in learning game design. However, maybe the most important final result of flow is that flow inducing studying activities are not done with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the playing of an educational game itself is the reward. This type of attitude supports the ideology of life-long learning and is priceless goal in education.

Now you know the ingredients that are needed to make a Flow Soup. However, I cannot provide the magic recipe that work in every situation. You just have to mix and match and create your own soup. One thing to get you started is to play some games and wait for the flow. When you have experienced it, explore the game deeply. Try to identifyi the building blocks of flow experience – how the designer caught your attention?

The final thing that I can provide you is a tool to evaluate the taste of your soup – the simple 9-item flow scale. Here it comes.

  • The challenge level of the game was appropriate for me. It was neither too challenging nor too easy (Note: the challenge level does not refer to use of the game’s user interface)
  • I understood what I needed to do and achieve in the game. Thus, I think that the goals were clear for me.
  • The game provided me such a feedback that I was aware how I was performing. I could really perceive the consequences of my actions.
  • The user interface of the game was easy to use. I could easily find all the necessary functionalities and information.
  • I felt that it could be possible to perform well in the game. Training could improve my skills to master the game.
  • I really enjoyed the playing experience. It was so gratifying that I want to capture it again for its own sake.
  • I was totally immersed with playing the game. External factors did not disturb me and I could keep my mind on the game events.
  • During playing I was not concerned with what others may have been thinking of my performance.
  • During playing the time seemed to pass very fast – suddenly the playing session was almost over.

That’s all folks.

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