Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is a physiologist who is well known for talking about the brain at a heightened level of engagement, which creates what he calls a “flow”. He describes it like this –
“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity… The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described… as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”
During his Ted talk he talks about how people obtain this feeling of ecstasy whilst performing a certain task. A moment of were you don’t exist, were your hunger, fatigue temporary disappear. He used examples of poets and musicians having these feelings with spontaneous creativity flowing from them. It makes the work effortless and fulfilling. He asked CEOs what makes them happy and they all generally had the same overall consensus, which was feeling part of something larger, helping others, overcoming all odds to success and forgetting yourself during the work.
Down below we have the flow chart that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly created. But how does it relate to games?
Down below there is a gamified flow chart which shows how the two correlates.
If you play a game that is to easy, then you will become bored and disengaged. Were as if it is to hard, you become frustrated and give up. So the flow is the sweet spot were players feel like they are progressing at a steady pace, with you increasing in skill which means that you can deal with harder levels. So the bottom of the chart have boredom, relaxation, apathy and the top has anxiety, arousal and flow. Then the two in-between which walk the line between the two sides worry and control. Not all games go by this chart but most do, Bloodborne is one example of the difficulty being in the frustration category, releasing anxiety, worry and dread onto the player with progress being ripped away if they die, only to fight for it all back again hoping to prevail. This also relates to Maslows hierarchy, specifically in the esteem section. The feeling of beating an area and killing the boss is enough of an award for the player to carry on after feeling the endorphin rush.
The satisfying “Prey Slaughtered” text
Many games now I believe have become easy for me. What I mean by this is they have strayed away from the frustration line, but are drawing a fine line between flow and the boredom zone. This is potentially to attract more players who find they can play the game, which then allows the game to capitalize. This is just opinion but I find it could be the case. Assassins creed is one example of this, the combat system is you hit with one button and then when the enemy is going to attack you parry with another button, repeat that a few times and that’s it loosely speaking. But then again, I am talking about my flow within games and this is a prime example of how everybody’s flow is different. Assassins creed could have the perfect flow for somebody else, but not for me. Just like Bloodborne has a good flow for me, but not somebody else.
Combat with Assassins creed
So to conclude, the flow is the best point a game can have the player in. It is when the escapism works, when the player forgets all else and totally engrosses themselves within, forgetting about worry and needs for that moment. All whilst steadily progressing with skill and difficulty which makes the player feel like they are getting somewhere and achieving something. To easy they become bored, to hard they become frustrated.
Image credit –
Game flow chart