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.