Flow - how to get it, how to create it

Flow. A favourite subject within game design as well as in gamification. Everybody wants their game or application to put the player in a state of flow. But what is flow? What benefits does it have and how can it be induced?

You know that feeling when you're so caught up in something, you almost feel like a machine? You lose track of time and place and you get a rush of energy, almost like a heightened awareness. That is what is called "flow": a natural state of focus and engagement in an activity. When we are in a state of flow, we are creative and productive but foremost, we are having a great time. We are filled with spontaneous joy or pleasure, solely by being immersed in what we're doing.

The term "flow" started with a man going by the easily memorable name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is a positive psychology researcher, and wrote a book called "Flow: The psychology of optimal experience". A huge bestseller, and often quoted within the field of game psychology.

In this book, and in his other books on the same topic, Mihaly explains the concept of these optimal experiences, and how they make us happier and more successful in life. The word "flow" comes from the metaphor of flowing water, similar to the sense of forward motion we feel when engaged in an activity.

Within game design, flow is a good measure of how fun and engaging our game is. It's "stickiness", if you will. Since we tend to become bored and quit something when flow is no longer there, obviously cracking the "flow code" is a way of keeping people using our product.

This traditional graphic of the "flow channel", depicting how flow is created in an activity, is often used in game development education:

From Jesse Shell's Art of Game Design

The recipe for flow

So how do we create flow? Is there a recipe? Well, there is none, not really. You cannot force-induce flow, nor can you predict when and where it happens. What you can do is create optimal circumstances for flow to occur:

1. You must have a clear goal or purpose with your activity. 

Sometimes it could be very concrete, such as finishing an assignment. Other times, the goal is more abstract, or more of a pursuit of perfection such as in art or sports.

2. You must get clear and immediate feedback on your actions.

What feedback does is give us a feeling of complete control. When we know the impact of our efforts, we can experiment and change direction freely within the activity in order to reach our goals.

3. The activity must be balanced against your skill level.

This is the difficult part, and the element that's tough to regulate. In games, it's easier, because every second of gameplay contains data that can be instantly changed to cater to the player's experience. If the player is having a hard time hitting targets, the hit area of those targets can be temporarily expanded, giving the player a greater feeling of accomplishment. As the player improves their hit percentage, the area is contracted. This keeps the player in that aforementioned flow channel, where the difficulty level motivates the player to go forward towards mastery.

4. The activity must demand your full focus and concentration.

This factor is not normally included in official conditions for flow, but I wanted to add it anyway because I think it further increases the chance for achieving flow. Becoming immersed in something is difficult if at the same time you're multitasking or watching tv. In order to be engaged, you have to agree to let yourself be immersed in the activity. To be seduced by it.

When are you in flow?

People get immersed in different things. Video games are a common flow-experience, that's why we love them. But we also experience the same feeling of intrinsic reward when skating, knitting, cooking, writing, running, et.c.

The best way to crack your specific flow code is to be aware of when you are experiencing flow in your life, and then analyze what it is in the activity that makes you feel that way. You could then try to transfer those ingredients to other areas where you would like to feel more engaged, for example your workplace.

Also, pay attention to when you drop out of flow. It could be when something feels to easy or too abstract, you get distracted, or you can't see your own progress. Watching out for, or eliminating, these pitfalls allows you to easier get into flow and stay in it for longer periods of time.

“Be like water ...Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend." 

- Bruce Lee