8.5. Flow In Games

Simplifying this a bit, we know that to be in a flow state, an activity must be challenging. If it is too easy, then the brain has no reason to waste extraneous mental cycles, as a positive outcome is already assured. If it is too difficult, the brain still has no reason to try hard, because it knows it’s just going to fail anyway. The goal is to hit that sweet spot where the player can succeed… but only if they try hard. You’ll often see a graph that looks like this, to demonstrate:

All this says is that if you have a high skill level and are given an easy task, you’re bored; if you have a low skill level and are given a difficult task, you’re frustrated; but if the challenge level of an activity is comparable to your current skill level… flow state!

Note that “flow” and “fun” are not synonyms, although they are related. You can be in a flow state without playing a game (and in fact without having fun). For example, an office worker might get into a flow state while filling out a series of forms. They may be operating at the edge of their ability in filling out the forms as efficiently as possible, but there may not be any real learning going on, and the process may not be fun, merely meditative.

The fun comes from the aesthetic of challenge - when someone in a flow state is finding new or better ways to overcome challenges. Basically Koster’s Theory of Fun says that what makes up much of the fun in games is developing skills.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)