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Flow in Games: The Science of Fun

I was linked to this really interesting site today that got me thinking enough to write about it on my blog. The site is called “Flow in Games” and it’s run by a guy named Jenova Chen, video game design graduate from USC School of Cinematic Arts, creator behind the multi award-winning student game Cloud and flOw, co-founder of thatgamecompany. His site is full of incredible ideas, games, and really out of the box realizations that all lead to the ‘big picture’, the Flow Zone.

What is this “Flow Zone”? Straight from his site: “In order to maintain the Flow experience, people need to adjust their experience, balance the challenges to their abilities, keep themselves in a safe zone where psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur.” After reading through his thesis I think the best explanation, for me, is that magical place between reality and whatever it is that you’re doing where time no longer exists. It’s that feeling you get when you’re so completely sucked into a game that you look up at the clock and realize hours have gone by in what felt like minutes.

In the conclusion of his thesis he breaks things down very, very simply. How to realize Flow in Games:

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:

  1. As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game.
  2. The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
  3. 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.

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

Active DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment), instead of passive, is an extremely interesting idea. When I was first linked to Jenova’s site I went straight for the flOw game. I planned to play it for a few minutes then read his site, but was really drawn in by how addicting something as simple as eating organisms and watching how your creatures grows by digesting them could be. After playing for 15 minutes and realizing that the game was really much more involved than simply eating and getting bigger I went and read his site. The realization of Active DDA vs. Passive DDA made sense. That realization got me thinking about how something like this could be applied to all sorts of games; especially mmorpgs. Instead of the game feeding you the flow experience you have to dynamically shape your own experience through choices you make… Now that’s a thinker that could keep me busy all day. Perhaps a topic for another time!

Breaking down “fun”, “frustration”, and “boredom”, etc into a basic “1+1=2” science is what this is all about for me. I always try pin pointing what makes a game fun or dull so that I may better share that with others. Here is a short (incomplete) list of very basic elements that make a game fun for me (Note: All do not need to present at one time, as Jenova Chen points out):

  • I like being challenged regularly with obstacles that I know I can overcome.
  • Choices and options must be abundantly available to me
  • I need direction, whether implied or not, to keep me moving
  • Reward me enough to make me feel my time was justified, but keep future rewards enticing


You could take the opposites of those and find what makes a game boring or frustrating for me. Take the first point for example. If I am not challenged often enough then I will be bored. If the challenges I am faced with are on too steep a curve then I will get frustrated. Another easy example is the last point. Fail to reward me and I’ll see no purpose; over reward me and I’ll feel as though I am “done”. Simple enough and applicable to every single game I play.

What are the most basic, bare bones elements needed to make a game fun, instead of boring, for you? It’s easy to say that it varies game to game, but from reading Jenova Chen’s thesis it is absolutely possible that these basic elements are specific and constant for us through all the games that we play.

[Thanks to Bartlebe for showing me this amazing site and thanks to Jenova Chen for sharing your thesis and ideas!]
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Ty Huls - June 18, 2008

Your blog is very much helpful for the children because it will help to know about this new gaming blog and it will add joy in their life.

Bartlebe - June 18, 2008

What makes a game fun for me?

1. A challenging enviroment that has clear landmarks to judge how I am progressing. Basically, I like to be able to see I am getting better and recognize how I am progressing.

2. I want games to be intuitive for me to pick up and play.

I think a good game makes anyone, regardless of skill level or knowledge, feel like they’re doing well. If someone picks up a game and they feel totally helpless for the first 3 hours of play, that will not be fun.

Fl0w is so amazing because right from the start, you’re eating other creatures and growing in size. You can see your progress, feel skillful in playing the game and reap rewards within the first 5 mins of playing.

I pray to the gaming Gods that Spore and Warhammer pay attention to these fundamental guidelines and can craft something that gives effortless hours of fun game time.

Livistos - June 18, 2008

This reminds me about a conversation a friend of mine an I had about the math behind encounters in MMOs vs the math behind encounters in let’s say… DnD for example. Your analysis of the “flow” zone is one of those things that makes sense to anyone who reads it, but at the same time hard to explain in a graphical way which you have done well.

Like Bartlebe, I hope that WAR has enough challenging elements to keep me sustained for a long time. EQ rested too much on the Anxiety side of the scale while WoW rested too much on the east side of the scale which made other more recent games trend more to the easy side. I also think that given too many abilities, you create a meta gaming situation that’s undesirable to me. Guild Wars is an excellent example of this.

Good read.

Gustavef - June 18, 2008

Not sure how earth shattering this is 🙂 (I have only read the introduction right now.) But this is a little more then good old fashion conditional theory. How often do you reward someone for what amount of effort.

WoW has created a fairly static model that seems to keep a lot of people interested in its game. It works for a large segment of the gamer population. However there is still a sizable segment of gamers that do not react well to the WoW implementation.

It will be easier to create an adaptive system in a single player game then in a multi player game. In a multi player game you will need to make sure there is still perceived equality. Which is a whole other physiological ball of wax.

Capn John - June 18, 2008

You want flow in a game, grab a copy of Harvest Moon. I’ve sat and zoned out playing that game without realizing how much time was passing by, then looked up and had a ‘Holy crap! It’s 1am!’ moment.

Malavar - June 18, 2008

Ya, Gustavef hit it dead on there. When this gets into multiplayer games, that’s where things kind of go astray. For example, it’s been noted that siege weapons in Warhammer will be mini-games (metagames) that will require your own dexterity to utilize (not your characters). Therefore, these mini-games will have to be designed in such a way that are easy to learn but difficult to master, otherwise you’ll upset both sides of the spectrum.

I think it can be done though, I mean look at games like Half-Life. Those new to the game could play online with veterans of the game and still have fun because of the gameplay balance (i.e. laser guided rocket launchers). In comparison, think of something like Quake III where if you were a newb and you got on a server with a bunch of vets, you be dead before you stepped a few feet off the respawn pad. It was that bad and kind of sad to see because people would die like twenty times and then just leave the server in frustration.

BTW the mention of “a wide spectrum of gameplay with different difficulties and flavor” totally is in synch with my dream MMO idea, whereby the diversity of the gameplay and the people themselves is utilized and designed as a community strength from the very beginning of the game. Therefore the different type of gamers (achievers, explorers, socializers, killers) actually contribute and benefit from each other by each doing what they like doing the most.

DFG - June 18, 2008

“Therefore the different type of gamers (achievers, explorers, socializers, killers) actually contribute and benefit from each other by each doing what they like doing the most.”

Like builders and fighters! http://www.epicwar.com/maps/54367/

Sylar - June 19, 2008

Capn John you are so right, Harvest Moon just sucks you in even though its got like the most simple gameplay and you basically doing the same thing over and over again. I guess repetition is important to the flow kind of thing, if you do something you enjoy wouldn’t you do it over and over again. Is that why WoW is so popular?

Medrin - June 19, 2008

Harvest Moon truly does use the same hook as most mmos, unsurprising. The game gives you a few broad goals(Save the farm by getting rich, get laid, go make all the townspeople happy for stuff ect.) and gives you a grind to achieve these goals(Get rich, get more land get more money get more land get gifts with money get more crops get more money). This repetitiveness does actually work to get you hooked because you don’t have to think too hard while continuously getting small rewards(You can see you crops slowly grow ect.) so you’re constantly getting rewarded by the game for minimal effort, all while working towards larger rewards. Very much like most MMO hooks imo.

Aaron - June 19, 2008

I ended up babbling about flow in today’s article. I haven’t read Chen’s thesis yet (though I’ve read bits and pieces for a year or more), but I disagree that challenge is necessarily involved in creating flow.

Rick - June 20, 2008

Great Graph! who doesn’t like graphs?!

I’m writing to you today on behalf of Instant Action.com – They’re running a contest to give artists and bands the chance to get a song featured in one of their game soundtracks. There will be a public voting round and also a panel of music industry vets to judge the submissions- including Grammy award winners, and hip hop artist Fat Joe.

As a gaming blogger I thought this promotion might be interesting to you and your readership. It is a great opportunity for a small band of any genre to get heard, even if they aren’t picked for the soundtrack.
More info can be found here: http://www.attackthesoundtrack.com

Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Thanks,
Rick

LibrariDan » Gaming, flow, fun, learning, and Age of Conan - June 25, 2008

[…] & Graev’s Gaming Blog has a post entitled Flow in Games: The Science of Fun which points to Jenova Chen’s MFA thesis. Lots to read […]

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