Why Flow in Video Games is Important for Game UX [TATT #37]

the acagamic tip tuesday Nov 01, 2022
Great boss fights in Hollow Knight make the game a contender for deep flow experiences.

In today's issue 37 of The Acagamic Tip Tuesday, I will show you what Flow in games is and why it is important for game UX. The benefits of creating Flow experiences in your games include increased productivity, creativity, satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Flow theory is a psychological concept used in many fields, but its application in game design is particularly relevant. Flow theory posits that when people are engaged in an activity they enjoy, they experience a sense of calm and satisfaction. This can be seen as the perfect environment for creativity to flourish and for users to feel like they are in control. In video games, flow provides an immersive experience that encourages players to explore and interact with the game world. By providing a consistent and rewarding experience, flow can help create an engaging user interface that drives users towards completing objectives.

Why is Flow important for Game UX: Flow is important for UX because it can create a powerful connection between player and game, leading to increased satisfaction with the experience.

Flow is when you're in the zone of gameplay and this is how you get there

Flow is an essential concept in UX, as it can help create a sense of satisfaction and well-being when engaging with a digital product. Flow theory was first developed by Csikszentmihalyi, who identified eight flow characteristics:

  1. Complete focus on a task;

  2. Clarity of goals and rewards, and immediate feedback.

  3. The speeding up or slowing down of time.

  4. Intrinsically rewarding experiences.

  5. Effortlessness and ease;

  6. A balance between challenge and skills.

  7. Peak experiences happen when actions and awareness are merged, and self-conscious rumination is lost.

  8. You feel a sense of control over the task at hand.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow occurs when individuals are engaged in an activity that is both challenging and satisfying. Challenges must be legitimate (not too easy or too hard) and offer opportunities for growth. Mastery over the challenges leads to a sense of pride and self-satisfaction; activities that are too easy or lack challenge can lead to boredom or frustration. In addition to the 8 traits of flow, there are also environmental factors that can influence how people experience it (for example: noise levels, lighting conditions).

Flow theory's impact on player experience

In video games, flow describes the experience of being so engaged in an activity that you lose sense of time and surroundings. Flow is important for UX because it can create a powerful connection between player and game, leading to increased satisfaction with the experience.

Flow theory was originally developed to study how people become absorbed in creative activities such as music or painting. Today, it has been applied to video games specifically because they are such interactive experiences. Flow can be thought of as a state of mind where you are completely immersed in the task at hand and feel like you are in full control.

There are several factors that contribute to flow in video games:

  1. Concentration refers to the allocation of a player's attention and an increase in cognitive, perceptual, and memory workload.

  1. Challenge is key to both cognitive processing (recognizing game problems) and emotional reaction (like feelings of failure or success). Good game design includes challenges that arise from interface and controls, as well as those that are part of the game itself.

  1. Flow occurs when player skills match the challenge of the game. This is mostly a cognitive effort because it is likely related to the formation of gameplay schemas stored in memory and administered by cognitive processes during gameplay. Thus, the development of basic effective playing skills in the interaction between designed game features and player’s a priori knowledge can be seen as an important precursor for flow.

  1. Flow is important for video game UX because it relates to the felt effectance of player action. This means that while mastering flow is a cognitive process, the actual experience of flow is connected to emotional evaluation of the cognitive ability to exert control over the game. This control could relate to both game-challenge-oriented control and user-interaction related control.

  1. Players need clear goals and a sense of progress to maintain engagement. This is important for UX because it helps ensure that players are always aware of what they need to do and how they are progressing.

  1. Feedback is important for keeping players engaged in a game. Too much or too little feedback can disrupt the flow state and negatively impact the player experience.

  2. Immersion in video games refers to a game's ability to absorb players cognitively by stressing their mental processing in a way that is still enjoyable. Flow is a state of mental immersion in an activity that leads to optimal player experience.

  3. Social interaction plays a crucial role in player enjoyment, even though it's not technically part of flow theory.

Flow makes your feel you are in full control of the environment, the gameplay, and the interaction between them. Environment refers to everything around you - from the graphics on screen to the sounds made by the game - while gameplay involves everything happening on screen. Interaction refers both to what players do (e.g., moving or selecting characters or items) and how they're told to do it (e.g., through instructions). Together, these three elements can create a gameplay experience that allows players to lose themselves in their environment and accomplish tasks simultaneously with others.

How to achieve flow in games

In Flow, everything feels natural and effortless. When you can achieve flow, your users will also be able to feel it, leading to a more immersive experience for them. Here are some tips on how to achieve flow in games:

  1. Make sure the game is paced well. Too much action at once or too little can disrupt flow and cause frustration among players. Pacing should be gradual so that players have time to adjust without feeling overwhelmed or bored.

  2. Use clear instructions and feedback loops. To keep players engaged, make sure all elements of the game are clear and understandable from the beginning. If there are any unanswered questions, provide additional information as needed – but don’t leave players stranded!

  3. Remove distractions as much as possible. If there are objects or voices in the environment that distract players from their task, remove them until they’ve completed the objective or dialogue sequence. This will help keep them focused on what’s important – making their experience more engaging overall!

The benefits of flow in games

In video games, flow is often referred to as “the zone” or “the groove”. When you are in flow, you are focused on the task at hand and your body and mind are working together to achieve your goal. The benefits of flow for user experience include increased productivity, creativity, satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

Many factors contribute to the creation of flow in a game, but two key ingredients are challenge and feedback. When the player faces a difficult challenge while progressing through the game, it provides an incentive to continue playing. At the same time, feedback—whether visual (such as messages on screen), auditory (such as sound effects), or tactile (such as movement)—is essential for informing players about their progress and helping them adjust their behaviour if necessary. Providing just enough challenge without overwhelming players is critical for ensuring they stay engaged throughout their experience; too much difficulty can lead to frustration and abandonment from gamers who might otherwise be interested in learning more about a game's content or storyline.

If you want to read up more on Flow in Video Games, I recommend this short paper on the different Flow models in games that I wrote a while back. It's a succinct paper that's easy to read.

Games Research Find of the Week

This paper is being presented at the CHI PLAY 2022 conference in Bremen this week, where I'll also be hosting a Masterclass on How to do User Experience Research in Games (you can still sign up for this remotely, it will be happening at 10 AM German time online tomorrow, November 2). But now, on to the paper: This is an important milestone publication because it presents a short version of the player experience inventory (a survey tool that has allow games UX researchers to assess player experience with a scientifically validated questionnaire for a while now (the original paper won best paper at the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies). This paper finally presents a short version of the PXI for time-pressed industry researchers that just want to get a quick gauge of the player experience in their game.

The player experience inventory (PXI) was published as a validated, robust, and reliable alternative to an ever-growing array of player experience questionnaires, such as the Game Engagement Questionnaire (GEQ), Game Immersion Questionnaire (GIQ), Immersive Experience Questionnaire (IEQ), Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) questionnaire, and the Ubisoft Perceived Experience Questionnaire (UPEQ). The PXI is composed of functional consequences (immediate, tangible consequences) with five constructs (Ease of Control, Audiovisual Appeal, Challenge, Clarity of Goals, Progress Feedback), and psychosocial consequences (emotional experiences) with five constructs (Meaning, Mastery, Immersion, Autonomy, Curiosity). Game enjoyment is a central component of player experience that can be added as an umbrella construct. Researchers understand game enjoyment as the positive cognitive and affective appraisal of the game experience, associated with supporting player needs and values.

This paper condenses the 33-item PXI measure into an 11-item measure (a single item per construct) over 3 studies (1 for construct selection: 366 people, 15 experts, 2 for reliability and validity: 232 people, 3 validity and sensitivity evaluation: 30 players evaluating 2 games). The Mini PXI has an average reliability score of .68.

Here are the 11 final items, which are scored on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree (-3)” to “Strongly Agree (+3)” which are presented in a randomized order to participants. Try it out in one of your next player experience studies and let us know what you think. They are used as just the statements without the bold labels for the constructs I have provided below:

  1. Audiovisual Appeal: “I liked the look and feel of the game”
  2. Challenge: “The game was not too easy and not too hard to play”
  3. Ease of Control: “It was easy to know how to perform actions in the game”
  4. Clarity of Goals: “The goals of the game were clear to me”
  5. Progress Feedback: “The game gave clear feedback on my progress towards the goals”
  6. Autonomy: “I felt free to play the game in my own way”
  7. Curiosity: “I wanted to explore how the game evolved”
  8. Immersion: “I was fully focused on the game”
  9. Mastery: “I felt I was good at playing this game”
  10. Meaning: “Playing the game was meaningful to me”
  11. Enjoyment: “I had a good time playing this game”

Read the full study: Aqeel Haider, Casper Harteveld, Daniel Johnson, Max V. Birk, Regan L. Mandryk, Magy Seif El-Nasr, Lennart E. Nacke, Kathrin Gerling, and Vero Vanden Abeele. 2022. MiniPXI: Development and Validation of an Eleven-Item Measure of the Player Experience Inventory. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 6, CHI PLAY, Article 244 (October 2022), 26 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3549507 (download the PDF for free)

Join UX rockstars learning about games, research, and writing

Each Tuesday, I will send you tips for UX in game research and design. And once a month, I will send you emails about academic writing.

No hassle, no selling your information, no spam. You can unsubscribe anytime.