I think most of us have been in “the zone” at one point or another while playing a game. You know what I mean: that trance-like state where things just click and you just can’t do wrong, be it headshot after headshot in a shooter, making jump after perfectly timed jump in a platformer, or pumping out just the right units at just the right rates in a real-time strategy game. Things are challenging enough to keep you engaged, but not too challenging so that you’re able to lose yourself in the game. It’s a great feeling.
Psychologists call this state of mind “flow” and some of them even do it without then adding “…man” in their best hippy imitation. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ((whose last name sounds like the bad guys in some Wing Commander game but totally isn’t)) is one of them, and he identified nine characteristics of psychological flow ((Fullagar, C. & Kelloway, K. (2009). Flow at work: An experience sampling approach. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82. 595-615.)):
- There must be a fine balance between the task’s difficulty and the person’s skill
- One’s performance of the task must become automatic, with little if any conscious effort ((What psychologists call “low action identification” because they like making up terms for things))
- The goals of the task must be very clear
- The activity must provide completely clear, unambiguous feedback about how well the person is doing
- There must be intense concentration on the task
- The person must feel a sense of fragile, finely balanced control
- Ego drops away and the person loses all sense of self-consciousness about what they’re doing
- The person loses track of time
- The activity becomes enjoyable enough to be a reason for its own being
Half of you are probably thinking “Hey, that reminds me of Rock Band!” Right down the the point of losing all sense of self-consciousness and flailing around with your little plastic guitar like a complete moron! The other half of you are probably thinking “No, it’s more like Guitar Hero!” You guys! You’re both right! And indeed, two researchers at Kansas State University had the same thought when they studied flow by having subjects play Rock Band songs and adjusting the difficulty of the game for each person until they hit that sweet spot associated with flow.
Flow is generally seen as a good thing by people experiencing it, and people who experience flow in a work activity are generally much happier with their work and do it better than those who don’t experience flow. The same holds true for games. So to the extent that game designers wish to engender a sense of flow in their games, they can use that list above as a checklist of targets to aim for.
This also seems to present an argument for either adaptive difficulty that scales to the player’s skill or for many more grades of difficulty than the typical easy, medium, and hard. The racing game Forza 3 seems to take this concept to heart, offering a variety of “assists” that allow players to fine tune how much help they need with things like steering, traction, and even breaking around turns. This kind of thing suggests to me that paired with the right kind of feedback and clear goals, Forza 3 can bring a state of flow to more people than another game lacking such features.
Interestingly ((Well, interesting to me. Hey, shut up, you guys. Leave me alone!)) there is also research ((e.g., Fullagar and Kelloway (2009) again)) suggesting that flow is both a state and a trait. That is, it may be a state of mind and an experience, but there are also some people who are, by dint of their very special makeup, more susceptible to falling into that delicious state of flow. My guess would be that if you took the top 10% of the fake plastic rock maniacs at Score Hero and gave them something like the Dispositional Flow Scale ((Jackson, S., & Eklund, R (2002). Assessing Flow in Physical Activity: The flow state scale and dispositional flow scale. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 24. 133-150.)) (a tool designed to measure one’s propensity towards flow states) they’d blow the lid off that thing.