A Very Brief Intro To Flow

Csíkszentmihályi Mihály is the psychologist that introduced the concept of flow, which is defined as completely focused motivation. As he defines it, people are talking about this state of flow when they describe someone as being “in the zone,” “on the ball,” “present,” “in the moment,” etc.  This state of flow is described as being both incredibly enjoyable and as an incredibly powerful way of harnessing emotions in the service of learning. Csíkszentmihályi’s work isn't the only legitimate perspective on motivation, but it is a useful one to consider. 

Activities are generally defined to be intrinsically motivated if people engage in them “for their own sake.” If people engage in an activity in pursuit of some reward that is external to the activity, they are driven instead by external motivation. Importantly, people tend to enjoy activities more, perform better and learn faster if they are intrinsically motivated to do them instead of externally motivated. This is why classroom grades aren’t great motivators for education, why promising future bonuses upon completion of a milestone to overworked employees can actually decrease moral, and why the “achievements” built into games can be considered harmful if poorly designed or implemented. This is why we really want people playing our game to be intrinsically motivated to do so. Csíkszentmihályi defined five aspects that describe intrinsically motivating activities, and as game developers we have various ways to design these aspects into our game.

1) “The activity should be structured so that the actor can increase or decrease the level of challenges he is facing, in order to match exactly his skills with the requirements for action.”  In case it isn’t clear, the term “actor” here would be the player of a game. The game industry attempts to address this aspect in various ways, by letting players choose their own gameplay difficulty or building dynamic difficulty levels that respond to player performance. Jenova Chen designed a game as a part of his MFA thesis that allowed players to actively and elegantly control their level of challenge at any time in the context of gameplay. He called the game, appropriately, “Flow.”

2)”It should be easy to isolate the activity, at least at the perceptual level, from other stimuli, external or internal, which might interfere with the involvement of it.” It turns out the processes the human brain use to solve problems come in handy here. When solving problems, humans build miniature realities in their heads where only information relevant to the problem exists—this happens in our heads all the time.  Ideally we as designers won’t place anything in our game that is purely random and has nothing to do with the problems the game presents, and so building a miniature reality from the reality presented by the game should be fairly straightforward.

3)”There should be clear criteria for performance; one should be able to evaluate how well or how poorly one is doing at any time.” This is why we always offer very clear goals to the player; players use goals and their progress toward them to evaluate their performance.

4)”The activity should provide concrete feedback to the actor, so that he can tell how well he is meeting the criteria of performance.” As has been mentioned in previous articles, providing feedback is an incredibly important part of game design—now you have know that one of the reasons it’s so important is because it strengthens the player’s intrinsic motivation, or perhaps more accurately, prevents the frustration that would destroy said motivation.

5)”The activity ought to have a broad range of challenges, and possibly several qualitatively different ranges of challenge, so that the actor may obtain increasingly complex information about different aspects of himself.” We address this aspect by building nested loops of challenges and problems to solve in the game—in plainer English, this means that we offer the player short term goals and long term goals, where the short term goals build toward the long term goals. When players start playing they only need concern themselves with the short term goals, and over time start looking toward the long term goals, meaning they have more goals and more information to keep track of in total.


Source: Csíkszentmihályi, M. Intrinsic rewards and emergent motivation. In M. R. Lepper and D. Greene (Eds.), The hidden cost of reward. Morristown, N.J.: Lawrence Eribaum Associates, 1979.