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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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