Applying “Flow” to Video Game Research and Development

Illustration of a long shadow chemical flask with a game pad Previously, we introduced the concept of flow, described what it means, and where it fits in the context of gaming.  If you haven’t read that introduction, you can find it here.

This time, we’d like dive deeper into explaining some of the specific methods that are currently available for studying video games, and explain how the flow concept can be integrated into those techniques to provide valuable insight regarding the development of the optimal experience for the player.   Some of these methods are fairly traditional, relying on research methodologies that have been in use for many years in many fields.  Others are part of the “Next-Generation” of tools and techniques that are seeing new and promising advancements regularly.

Traditional playtesting methods are the approaches that have been around for a while.  They’re the time-tested gold standard for industry research, and revolve primarily around observing the player during gameplay tests and questioning them after the session.  This can be done one-on-one, via survey questions, or in focus groups.  Another traditional method is the “think aloud” protocol, in which the player continually comments on their experience as they play the game.

While these methods are a good way to uncover major issues in the game being tested, they are subject to many biases.  The player’s memory and their replies when reporting afterward might not be an accurate account of the actual events.  They may have forgotten something entirely or they may be uncomfortable providing negative feedback.  The quality of the information gained is entirely subjective, therefore making accurate and reliable interpretation difficult.

Next-Generation playtesting is an emerging field in which quantifiable, objective information can be obtained about a player’s gameplay experience.  One Next-Gen approach is the use of psychometrics, which are questionnaires and tests based in psychology that help determine the skills, attitude, and traits of a player.

Another approach is psychophysiology—the interpretation of the body’s various electrical signals as indicators of specific psychological states.  Psychophysiology is reliable, reproducible, and brings to light the non-conscious underpinnings of emotional experience.

But what does this all have to do with flow?

With a stimulus as complex as a video game, massive amounts of complex data are generated, which can be misconstrued if not interpreted properly.  It is necessary to understand exactly what you are observing and to be able to fit it into a theoretical framework so that you can generate meaning from it.  That’s where the flow concept comes in.  By finding psychophysiological correlates to the aspects of flow, we can find significance in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mass of data.

This information can inform and empower developers because it tells them exactly how the player really feels at any given moment of their experience.  There are no skewed opinions due to memory bias, and there is no filtering of responses to verbal Q&A or surveys.  Next-Gen playtesting – specifically psychophysiology – offers a direct hotline to the body’s basic mechanisms of emotional reaction.

When next-gen playtesting is combined with traditional methods, it creates a well-rounded repertoire, capable of addressing all angles of how a game is truly being experienced by players.  At HCD Research, we utilize these approaches and continue to refine our methodology, so that we can uncover what is really at the core of the player’s experience.

Next time, we’ll discuss more about who we are at HCD Research, the tools we use, and what makes us equipped to tackle to new and emerging field of next-gen video game research.