October 25, 2020
Caught In The Flow State

If you’ve ever played a game for more than four hours without realizing it, you’ve fallen victim to the Flow State. We all know what the Flow State is, but like most people, I never knew the actual term for it until I read about it in the game design class of my senior year in college. I’ll use my mother as an example:

My mom isn’t a gamer. I think the most gaming she ever did was play football or baseball with my Dad way back on one of the older generation game systems, and that was it. I can still remember her complaining about how my brother, my father, or I would spend hours on the computer or one of our many consoles growing up. “You’re going to hurt your eyes!” she’d say, despite the fact nobody’s vision was less than 300/300 in our family by that time anyway. I had always hoped Mom would find some game to play so that she’d understand or at least could spend some family time with us doing something other than being crabby or feeling left out.

Then, very recently, the casual gaming market skyrocketed with the release of Smartphones and tablets. Mom got an iPad for Christmas, and of course being a little technology-challenged she only used it for basic amenities. Last May when I graduated and we all went to Disney World for a weekend, I noticed my mother playing some slots game on her iPad in the hotel. Apparently one of her co-workers had been playing it, and she was checking it out for herself. So, with a casual offhand remark, I said she should try Bejeweled Blitz. It was another of those simple little matching games that I figured she’d like.

About a month later, Dad informed me over the phone that Mom had been playing Bejeweled Blitz and other casual games for SIX HOURS and blamed me for her newest addiction. Mom, too, admits that she is addicted but doesn’t really care because it ‘keeps her busy’.

The whole situation brings a big toothy grin to my face every time. Not only is my mother now a casual gamer, but she can’t criticize anyone else for spending hours looking at a screen anymore. A win-win situation for everybody!

But what is it exactly that makes a game addictive? What pushes people into that time-ignorant whirlpool known as the Flow State?

The answer — well, there isn’t quite an answer to give. There isn’t a specific formula for making a game addictive. What it really comes down to is having a perfect balance of challenge and choice.

Note that I said challenge and not difficulty. Making a game impossibly hard will normally drive most players away after a couple attempts unless of course they’re hardcore gamers who will obsess over beating the game for personal satisfaction and/or bragging rights. A perfect example of this is the notoriously difficult game Demon Souls, which challenges hardcore players on purpose. A lot of gamers, however, have less patience and/or simply want to have fun when playing a game and won’t waste time or money on something that just plain frustrating.

However, bringing Demon Souls back up again, a game that is challenging has goals that are obviously possible to complete and therefore encourages the players to try and try again. This is like playing a platformer where you have to hit the double jump button at just the right time in order to reach the far ledge. Every time your character’s fingers just barely brush the edge, seemingly an inch or so away, you HAVE to try again because you were just SO close.

But even if you make that jump a thousand times, eventually the player is going to have to give up out of frustration or lack of time to continue spending on the endeavor. That’s where choice comes in.

Let’s talk about Angry Birds for this one. The franchise is worth over a billion dollars. Why? Aside from very clever marketing and merchandising (there are T-shirts and plushies for goodness sake!), the actual game itself has a very clear yet challenging goal: launch the birds into all of the pigs.

There isn’t just one way to hit all of the pigs, though. You, as the player, physically pull back the little slingshot and angle the birds in any direction that you feel is the best. Will you try to break the wooden supports and hope that the rock it carries comes crashing down on the arrogant swine? Or, you could try to hit the pig at the very top dead-on and get him out of the way! There are so many possibilities!

Even in Bejeweled Blitz, my Mother’s favorite game, you have the choice of which shiny jewels to match and make disappear, which shifts all the stones around it and changes the game board. Or in the words of my very own mother:”You have to pick all the gems at the bottom, otherwise you get stuck and the time runs out!” This is the choice that players have, the freedom of endless ways to try and solve that challenging problem — it’s what drags many players into the infamous Flow State and makes time (as well as other responsibilities) disappear from your mind because you are just so absorbed in this digital world.

And then, of course, you get the ‘virtual life’ games like the Sims (you have no idea how many hours of my life I’ve wasted playing the Sims) and every single MMORPG. Just like the above examples, they have a simple yet challenging goal (guide your Sim through their lives, advance the plot, level up your avatar, etc.) but an infinite amount of choice. What does this character look like? What will be their job/profession? How will she/he/it/YOU interact with its environment and other players? Add in the social aspect of MMORPGs and the real-money-trade stores for new Sim items and you’ve got an almost horrifyingly powerful Flow State that affects both online and the offline world. And it’s not like the Flow State is limited solely to video games or a certain age — Gaia Online, a popular collection of forums and flash-based games with customizable avatars, is aimed at kids ages 13+ and also offers extra gold or special items in exchange for cards you can buy in the supermarket for a relatively cheap price; and I know people who have been on that site for years and kids (myself included, at least back when I was in high school) who sign on every day for hours on end.

I personally find the Flow State interesting and useful as a game designer because it is a phenomenon that can be used for both fantastic fun and life-ruining evil if you can’t control (or at least moderate) your addiction. Then again, that can be said for almost anything pleasurable in this world, no?

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