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Flow in Games

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IngredientX
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http://jenovachen.com/flowingames/abstract.htm

This is an MFA thesis project that's written with video games in mind, especially the idea of DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment) and opponent AI. However, the idea of a "Flow Zone" is something that really does pertain to us board game designers.

Quote:
Based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s positive psychology research, when a person totally focus into an activity and forget about time and pressure, he reaches the optimal experience, Flow. There are many conditions in order to reach Flow.

In the field of game design, there are three fundamental conditions:

- As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game.
- The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
- The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.

In order to enhance Flow experience, here are the methodologies game designers can pick up and apply to their own designs and make them enjoyable by a much broader audience.

- Expand your game’s Flow coverage by including a wide spectrum of gameplay with different difficulties and flavors
- Create an Player-oriented Active DDA [Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment] system to allow different players to play in their own paces
- Embed DDA choices into the core gameplay mechanics and let player make their choices through play

This has come a lot closer to defining "fun" (which will probably always be undefinable, IMVHO) than anything I've seen so far. Interesting stuff.

jwarrend
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Flow in Games

I read some of Cziksentmihaly's (sp?) work probably 12 or so years ago, and it's pretty interesting stuff. I like how the concepts of matching difficulty to capability can be applied to game design. This could provide a productive way to interpret the "open holdings/closed holdings" debate or questions of "how much analysis is acceptable before it becomes paralyzing?": the answer depends on the players' optimal levels of performance, and the experience will be optimally enjoyable when the playability factors match the players' aptitudes. Of course, all players differ, and perhaps in some sense tastes may be driven by intrinsic aptitudes.

It has been a while, but I believe that the choice of the word "flow" was not accidental; it describes a person who is dynamically involved in the task he is performing and is working at a maximal efficiency. If that recollection is accurate, I wonder how well the concept of flow really applies to turn based games, where you're constantly being disrupted by the cessation of your turn and the delay from other players' turns. I think you can get closer to a state of "flow" in a situation where you are involved in some non-trivial way in other players' turns, but lacking that, the answer might be to only play with people whose play style are best-matched to one's own (although we all know how hard that is to orchestrate!)

Interesting food for thought, though. I'd forgotten about this work and it definitely makes me want to refresh my memory and think about its implications for gaming. Thanks Gil!

-Jeff

Kreitler
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Flow in Games

jwarrend wrote:
...I wonder how well the concept of flow really applies to turn based games, where you're constantly being disrupted by the cessation of your turn and the delay from other players' turns. I think you can get closer to a state of "flow" in a situation where you are involved in some non-trivial way in other players' turns, but lacking that, the answer might be to only play with people whose play style are best-matched to one's own (although we all know how hard that is to orchestrate!)

That's what I was thinking when I first read through the quote Gil supplied. Then I reviewed the quote more carefully, and there isn't any reference to the actual distribution of events on a timeline.

In that sense, "Flow" may be a poor term. The three criteria listed are:
1) The game is "intrinsically rewarding" (i.e., "fun"?) and the player is "up to the game".
2) The game is challenging enough to be engaging and has depth enough for the player to plumb.
3) The player needs to feel like he has some control over the game.

So pacing isn't an issue.

I have experienced "Flow" in Star Fleet Battles, where actual time between turns can be measured in tens of minutes, if not hours. However, the game systems and strategies are deep enough that players spend "down time" analyzing the situation and plotting their next move.

I suspect that any game where depth of play requires planning one or more moves ahead promotes "Flow" in the sense that one is constantly immersed in the game even if one is not actively taking his turn.

I might even suggest this a general "design rule": if a game requires players to plan moves during others' turns, it promotes flow.

It might be useful to look at the contrapositive and see if games matching it have no flow.

Contrapositive: if a game allows players to sit idly when not taking their turns, it discourages Flow.

Not to pick easy targets, but many classic American boardgames have this quality. Games of Monopoly and Clue are often earmarked by impatiently waiting for your turn to come around so you can act (at least, I remember them that way).

Interestingly, the sense of impatience implies frustration at the "slow passage of time" -- which implies players are aware of the clock -- a direct violation of the Flow requirements.

Thanks Gil and Jeff for providing some very interesting materials...

K.

Jpwoo
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Flow in Games

Quote:

- Expand your game’s Flow coverage by including a wide spectrum of gameplay with different difficulties and flavors

While I think this applies to videogames for sure. I am not so sold on board games. Generally the difficulty is set by the players not the game. (though not always.) And setting differing flavors of challenge can be bad. Many times providing very different experiences within a game is disruptive rather than enjoyable. I think that board game designers have to focus more on a coheasive game experience more than adding novelty to their games.

Quote:
- The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.

I think this point is definately a big one for board games. Nothing worse than feeling helpless or at the mercy of the game.

jwarrend
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Flow in Games

Kreitler wrote:

In that sense, "Flow" may be a poor term.

I think that Flow is actually exactly the right term for the effect that Cziczenmihalyi describes, it's just that it may not be completely portable to the specific activity of boardgaming. But clearly there are analogies.

Quote:

I have experienced "Flow" in Star Fleet Battles, where actual time between turns can be measured in tens of minutes, if not hours. However, the game systems and strategies are deep enough that players spend "down time" analyzing the situation and plotting their next move.

Absolutely; the key seems to be involvement, and that can certainly happen even in a game with spaces between turns. I guess the idea would be that in a state of "flow", you finish your analysis and are ready to take your turn at exactly the moment that your turn comes up.

If that were accurate, that could possibly founder the additional maxim that a game state that changes too drastically from turn to turn could be disruptive to flow since the player's advance planning is wasted time if the game state can change too much from what he has been planning around.

Quote:

Not to pick easy targets, but many classic American boardgames have this quality. Games of Monopoly and Clue are often earmarked by impatiently waiting for your turn to come around so you can act (at least, I remember them that way).

Actually, both of these can and should have substantial involvement of inactive players. Plus, the turns in both of these are pretty punchy. Risk would be a bigger culprit; long turns and trivial involvement by inactive players. (I guess rolling dice for your own defense sort of feels like involvement, but not really...) But I still think Risk is a good game; just not a game conducive to "flow". So perhaps we should be careful about not making flow and fun synonymous...

-Jeff

Kreitler
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Flow in Games

jwarrend wrote:
So perhaps we should be careful about not making flow and fun synonymous...

Roger that.

The requirement that "a game must be intrinsically rewarding" sounds like saying "the game is fun", IMHO -- so "fun" is a prerequisite for Flow.

"Flow" seems to mean something more like "Immersion" or "Being in the Zone". A game with good flow keeps you constantly, effortlessly involved and in the game's headspace.

Risk is an excellent example of a game that doesn't promote this for all the reasons Jeff mentioned.

Games with Flow are almost always fun, but games without Flow can be fun as well.

K.

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