Engaging in a state of “flow” is one of the most mesmerizing things that your players can do. They are engaged with your game. They are performing at the top of their ability. They are so engrossed that they begin to lose track of time.
A flow state is something that all designers should aim to achieve in their game design. But what is flow? What is a flow state? How can you achieve it in your own designs?
What is flow state?
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1997) is a Hungarian-American psychologist who first coined the term for flow state. He described it as when individuals are “in the zone.” That could happen when musicians play a really involved and challenging piece; artists create in a consistent and blissful state; and writers continue to put words on the page at a frenetic pace.
Flow involves an immersion and an energized focus. You’ve probably encountered this before when you’ve begun to lose track of time doing something fun and energizing. For most of you that includes playing games. Playing our favorite games puts us into that flow state: a state of complete absorption from which we become blissfully unaware of the outside world.
What you experience in a flow state
A flow state is enviable because the individual produces an extreme focus on whatever task they are involved in. Whether that means playing music, sculpting, skiing down a mountain, or playing a game. We become utterly engrossed in the activity.
That engrossment comes from a sense of active control. We are in control of how we engage in the activity and our sense of autonomy around it. Active control means a merger of action and awareness. That’s because during our flow state we cease to think about the activity and rather “become the activity.” Our thoughts immediately become actions as we continue to engage.
That engagement seems mesmerizing as we develop a loss of awareness for time and space. That has happened to people who have become lost in a book, with a puzzle, or through playing any number of highly engaging games. Our sense of time becomes distorted as we spent an inordinate amount of energy on this single task.
That distortion comes from the activity itself. Our play is intrinsically motivated so we continue to do it. The activity itself becomes the justification of why we continue to engage.
Creating that flow
Creating a flow state in games is something the designer can create. But it’s engagement for the players is never guaranteed. Though, game designers can best structure engaging activities in games by doing the following.
Having concrete goals and manageable rules makes it so that the player realizes and understand the structures and limits of their activities. By knowing that they must reach the bottom of the ski slope as fast as possible, the Olympic athlete knows that they must take every turn as fast as they can. The rules of the event dictate that they must stay on the course. A combination of both them nudges them to enter a state of flow.
In addition, designers will want to define goals that fit within the person’s capabilities. A flow state is achieved when a player is playing at the top level of their ability. The game is neither too easy nor too difficult for them to play. Rather, they are “pleasantly uncomfortable” in their ability to continue to play the game. Such engagement keeps the game interesting for them to continue to push their abilities and grow their capacity.
That growth in players’ abilities and accomplishments is based on them receiving feedback from their actions. Returning to the Olympic skier analogy: the athlete will know they have taken a turn too fast if they are pushed off balance. So now they must use their abilities to re-direct them back to the course and continue downhill as fast as they can.
To engage and excel in a flow state, the player must remove any extraneous distraction. That means that they become involved in the activity and nothing else. If the player is playing at the top of their ability, then they cannot afford any distractions that would take them outside a state of flow.
Designing for the flow state
While flow state is applicable and relatable to many games, we can also see it in educational activities and games-based learning. That comes from the modulation of difficulty from certain activities.
When teaching for competency, instructors must make content and activities more challenging when the student demonstrates that they have mastered previous content. To remain at the same level continuously means that a student would become un-engaged due to a lack of a challenge. That’s why certain table top games like Caco and Carcassone increase the number of decisions for players as a way of also ramping up difficulty as the game progresses.
Making sure that students also receive actionable and constant feedback is important. That means that students engaging with content are not only able to test their mastery, but also receive feedback on their own learning. This can be implemented in a games-based learning solution by having students teach others. Students will be better positioned to create a meta cognitive process for understanding their own knowledge creation through the action of teaching others.
Lastly, instructors should also strive to have clear goals for what they want their students to learn and accomplish. This can be done by always demonstrating the learning outcomes for the class and the course at both the beginning and the end of each class session. Doing so allows students to always know what direction they are headed in. In video games we see this in quest dialogue boxes in World of Warcraft where the player is always aware of what open objectives are left to accomplish in order to finish the quest.
Flow and effective teaching
So flow is great for games and highly engaging activities. But what can instructors do to use it in the classroom?
For traditional learning material or liberal arts focused curriculum, it’s important that students see where they can apply their learning in everyday activities outside the classroom. That means having the ability to demonstrate how what they’re learning has relevance in their everyday lives.
Another method that combines flow state, feedback, and metacognition for students is their ability to give feedback to themselves. That can take the form of evaluating their own work to determine where they have grown and what they have mastered since the beginning of the class. By doing this, the student can see and determine for themselves what they’ve done to get this far.
Flow state for games based learning
While flow state can be engaged in games and is demonstrated to have an outsized influence in teaching and learning, both can be combined for games-based learning.
Flow has been connected to a positive influence in performance. If students can demonstrate to themselves and others the growth in their ability, autonomy, and efficacy, they will want to continue engaging, learning, and developing.
The closest that current instructors get to games-based learning is through serious games and simulations. Here, instructors use case studies, scenarios, and role-playing to demonstrate how curricular information can be applied in a practical manner.
These scenarios and simulations inside the classroom then lead to additional thought and consideration for what can be done outside the classroom. These applications in students’ everyday lives represent real world applications for their learning which furthers their desire to discover and engage more.
Now that you’ve discovered what flow state is and what that experience entails, you can begin to design games, simulations, activities, and instructional materials that setup your players and students to experience it. By designing for and engaging your users in a state of flow, you can best prepare them for effective and actionable teaching and learning.
This article addressed flow state in games-based learning. If you’d like to learn more about flow state is created in gamification then check out the free course on Gamification Explained.
Dave Eng, EdD
Baron, S. (2012, March 22). Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/166972/cognitive_flow_the_psychology_of_.php
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). The masterminds series. Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY, US: Basic Books.
Diaz, R. (2018, June 17). The "Flow" state's influence during game design process. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@raydaz/the-applications-relevance-of-flow-state-design-in-video-games-1572dac0d2c
Khare, K. (2018, April 24). The State of Flow while Learning. Retrieved from https://medium.com/a-teachers-hat/the-state-of-flow-while-learning-d1d15f332fa0
Perttula, A., Kiili, K., Lindstedt, A., & Tuomi, P. (2017). Flow experience in game based learning–a systematic literature review. International Journal of Serious Games, 4(1), 57-72. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5826/1c7e22b2525b767178177b4dc23f57431834.pdf