Boss Rush Banter: When Playing Games, Have You Experienced What Experts Call “Flow Theory”?

You just dropped onto the map on Fortnite, and within minutes you’ve racked up 10 kills, making it look easy. Or you ended a team deathmatch game on Call of Duty Cold War with well over 30 kills, and you don’t really remember how you did it. Ever play Dark Souls and you practically “run” through each boss like it was nothing? Some people call that “flow,” and it’s a phenomenon that is well known in the video game world. So much so, that there are actual scientific studies on the topic. 

A concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s called “flow theory” initially was intended to evaluate a state that athletes, artists, and musicians experience when they are fully dedicated to the tasks they are performing, which influences their continual participation. This concept was further studied in Thailand by university students, with respect to video gaming. They found that the flow experience could be categorized into cognitive flow and emotional flow, having both drawbacks and benefits. 

Cognitive flow is described as having “challenge-skill balance, clear goals and unambiguous feedback.” Game developers often employ these tactics when designing games to try and hook the players into playing more in the long run. It’s referred to as the “macroflow,” which is often seen in free-to-play games or Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG). As a game designer or developer, they are trying to curve the difficulty into a gradual state that can invest the player long term, and not lose the player because the game becomes too easy, or even too hard. They toe the line between anxiety (too challenging) and boredom (too easy). 

Game developers also have to clearly define goals to the player to properly motivate them to continue for the long term, and even drop positive feedbacks (ie. sound effects, animations, and point boosts) and “loot” to the player as a reward. 

Emotional flow is short term and can be defined as “action-awareness merging, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, loss of consciousness, and time transformation.” This also correlates to a “microflow” state that requires your deepest concentration for a short time span. However, to keep the player engaged for the long term, there needs to be a balance of these emotional flow states. It could be a boss battle, a highly skilled platforming segment, or even an overpowered state in a mutiplayer game. These sessions could last anywhere from three minutes to even 20 minutes, and the gamer needs them at frequent intervals to keep them pushing on.  

These emotional flow states put players in a “zone,” which can seemingly warp time and cause a moment of short term amnesia. How often have you had the following conversation?

“How’d you beat that boss!?”

“I don’t know, I just did it.”

That describes the loss of consciousness mode of gameplay, where you become hyper focused on the task at hand, so that it seems something else takes over for you, like leaning forward in your chair. 

However, just as there are benefits, there are also drawbacks to these flow states. Cognitive flow can cause undue harm to players, especially those prone to addiction. They become obsessed with achieving goals and receiving feedback. There are also extrinsic rewards in the form of “loot” and “gear” that can keep players coming back. Going through long play sessions, and over a long period of time (ie. months, years) can lead players into an addictive flow of chasing these “prizes.” 

We’ve all experienced some form of “flow” in video games, whether it’s through online matches, single player action games, MMORPGs, or even mobile match three games. It can be cognitive, where the game itself is challenging enough and possessing a smooth difficulty curve to keep you invested in the long run, or emotional, which is short term, but provides intrinsic motivation all the while bringing on a high sense of control and concentration, as well as loss of time and consciousness. These flow moments have a high skill and high challenge requirement, but also possess a high reward at the end in the form of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. 

What games put you in this “flow state”? Let us know in the comments section! 

Flow Experience in Computer Game Playing…
The Flow Theory Applied to Game Design

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