All posts by Matthew Rosazza

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.

From the HCDGR Lab: An Introduction to Flow

It’s the night before a major deadline. Time is running short and the pressure is on. You’ve been struggling with your project for quite some time, and you are beginning to question whether or not you’ll be able to accomplish your goal.

Then something clicks.

The flood gates of productivity open and your ability to focus and create returns – seemingly out of nowhere. You start making serious headway and, before you know it, your task – which seemed so daunting before – is done. And done well. Looking back, you have no idea how this strange burst of focus and creative energy came about, but you can’t help but feel a sense of contentment and pride.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If it does, you may have experienced a phenomenon called “flow.” The term was popularized by a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, who was curious about what made people happy. You can hear his story by checking out his TED talk. In it he describes how came upon the understanding that finding flow is essential to enjoying life.

But what is flow, exactly?

Flow is a mental state that a person can enter when performing an activity. There are many mental states that we can possibly be in at any given moment, but flow is a state in which the person is focused, motivated, and immersed in what they are doing. They are absorbed into the activity so much that they are energized by it, and get a great sense of joy from it. Outside distractions fade away, time passes without much notice, they become focused almost entirely on the task or activity at hand.

Flow is not a new idea. The core concept has been around for many years and has been given many names.

It’s not unusual to hear about someone “being in the zone,” a phrase common to engineers, artists, athletes, musicians – anyone who routinely faces and overcomes a challenge. It can also be likened to the concept of “zen” in Eastern philosophies. It’s everywhere, it happens every day, and it’s what Csikszentmihaly says is at the heart of happiness and enjoyment.

So what does this all have to do with video games?

The main goal of any video game is to make its players feel happy and engaged. To do that, they need to amuse and challenge players. They need to provide an experience that is absorbing and entertaining and purposeful. In other words, they need to give players the chance to experience flow.

Approaching game design and production through the lens of the flow concept provides a powerful tool for judging just how effective a game is at making players feel happy and engaged. In turn, being able to measure just how well a game delivers opportunities for experiencing flow can provide a meaningful indicator of how well a game is likely to be received by players.

In our next post, we’ll start to dive into the specifics of how flow can be measured in games and what it can do to inform and empower developers.

SfN2015 – Days 3 and 4

MONDAY – I kicked things off yesterday by visiting the vendor booths.  The first stop was Wearable Sensing, where I was able to see an EEG headset using dry electrodes.  In our research at HCD, we shy away from using EEG because of several reasons, one of which being the use of electrode gel on the scalp, which is an unpleasant experience for the participant.  The Wearable Sensing equipment didn’t seem too cumbersome, and it may be an option for us in future research.


The next stop was the Tobii Pro booth, where I got to meet their team.  They had a few cool things in the works, one of which was a eye tracking with VR headsets.  Their prototypes included an Oculus-based setup and a Google Cardboard-based setup.  With the Oculus setup, I was taken through a virtual store, and got a tour up and down the aisles.  It was a bit disorienting, because I was not moving my body in sync with my virtual self.  At HCD, we’ve discussed the applications of VR for consumer insight studies in store simulations like this.  I believe it takes a certain type of person to allow themselves to be immersed in a virtual world, and there are a large number of people that would find it a very jarring experience.


Since I hadn’t gotten a chance to catch any talks up until this point, I picked out a few interesting ones.  I decided to check out a subject that hits very close to home, disrupted sleep, which had a minisymposium in the afternoon.  Disrupted sleep tends to be generally bad across the board, affecting everything from hormones to gene transcription, and the talk made me briefly rethink my personal habits.


Next, I attended a special talk on the biology of mammalian taste, presented in the main hall by Dr. Charles Zuker.  For several years, I had worked in a lab studying the taste receptors of the tongue, and this was a bit of a jog down memory lane for me.  His argument was that taste provided a great example of how the brain interacts with the environment, and by manipulating specific genes, we get very distinct changes in the function of receptors and the perception of taste.


I wrapped up the day by checking out Tobii’s satellite event at the Hyatt Regency.  There I got to hear a talk by Dr. Adam Kiefer on concussion prevention, with the implication that eye tracking technology can train athletes to pay more attention in instances where injury can be avoided.

TUESDAY – I attended a nanosymposium today on a subject a little more relevant to our interests at HCD:  emotional processing and regulation.


There were several interesting talks, but the one that stood out for me was “Emotional modulation of loss and risk aversion in clinical anxiety.” One of the central ideas was that loss was weighted more heavily than gain for individuals with anxiety, leading them to take less risks in gambling scenarios.  It’s something to consider when looking at a person’s emotional experience within our own studies.

Tomorrow is the last day for me at this event.  It’s been interesting, somewhat exciting, at times overwhelming, and just generally exhausting.  Let’s do it again next year.  -Matt

SfN2015: Day 1 – Poster Presentation

               Though I’ve been working in the neuroscience field for several years now, I’ve never been to a Society for Neuroscience conference before.  I arrived at McCormick Place in Chicago yesterday not sure what to expect.  I was told that it was massive, but I had no idea just what almost 30,000 scientists all in one place looked like.  Saying I was a little overwhelmed would be a bit of an understatement.  Still, it was fascinating to think that the best neuroscientists from all over the world were here, and I get to walk among them.
               My poster board was located in the back of the hall, in the section reserved for “Emotion: Information Processing” themed posters.




              For the last several months at HCD, I’ve been working on and refining methods for studying emotional responses to video games.  When deciding what to check out at the SfN meeting, I wanted to focus on seeing what other scientists were doing in this area.  I tracked down two researchers from UC Denver named Ryan Farero and David Albeck, who were tackling video game violence.
               In their studies, they wanted to know how playing a violent video game can change the way a person reacts to emotionally charged visual stimuli.  They used EEG to measure this, and had Grand Theft Auto IV as the violent game stimuli.  Participants also completed a personality questionnaire assessing altruism.  They found that the more altruistic people became more sensitized to violence after violent game play, and the less altruistic people became more desensitized.  It was interesting stuff, considering all the allegations blaming video games for violent behavior that just don’t seem to go away.

The titles of their posters:

“Altruism effects on event-related potentials following violent video game play”

“The magnitude of violent acts committed in a video game alters the EEG response to violent images shown after playing the game”

Other interesting posters dealing with emotion:

“Understanding emotion in the brain: Comparing categorical and dimensional models of emotion using multivariate pattern analysis”

“The effect of dynamic facial expressions on subsequent emotional information processing: An fMRI study”

“Negatively connoted music increases brain activity in the prefrontal cortex: A NIRS study”