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Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design
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Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design

March 22, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Microsoft Studios user experience researcher Sean Baron takes a look into the often discussed, but rarely concisely defined, concept of Flow, and offers a succinct definition and suggestions for implementing conditions to help players get into the zone.]

You sit down, ready to get in a few minutes of gaming. Hours pass and you suddenly become aware that you're making ridiculous faces and moving like a contortionist while trying to reach that new high score. You ask yourself: Where did the time go? When did I sprain my ankle?

Maybe you didn't sprain your ankle, but if you consider yourself a gamer, you've probably ended up in similar situations. They happen because you've reached a critical level of engagement with whatever game you're playing.

More often than not, these types of gaming sessions occur when you're playing a great game. If game developers were able to characterize and add design considerations that facilitate these engaged states they'd create more enjoyable and better selling games.

Luckily, these heightened levels of engagement have been studied by psychologists. They even have a name for it: Cognitive Flow. In what follows, I will introduce Flow and the four characteristics of tasks that promote it. For each characteristic, I will provide some basic psychological perspectives and relevant recommendations for game developers.


In the 1970s a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi experimentally evaluated Flow. He found that a person's skill and the difficulty of a task interact to result in different cognitive and emotional states. When skill is too low and the task too hard, people become anxious. Alternatively, if the task is too easy and skill too high, people become bored. However, when skill and difficulty are roughly proportional, people enter Flow states (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Flow, boredom, and anxiety as they relate to task difficulty and user skill level. Adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

While in these states, people experience:

  1. Extreme focus on a task.
  2. A sense of active control.
  3. Merging of action and awareness.
  4. Loss of self-awareness.
  5. Distortion of the experience of time.
  6. The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.

Csikszentmihalyi also outlined four characteristics found in tasks that drive an equilibrium between skill and difficulty, thus increasing the probability of Flow states. Specifically, these are tasks that:

  1. Have concrete goals with manageable rules.
  2. Demand actions to achieve goals that fit within the person's capabilities.
  3. Have clear and timely feedback on performance and goal accomplishment.
  4. Diminish extraneous distraction, thus facilitating concentration.

It is these four task characteristics that game developers should consider if they want to increase the likelihood of causing Flow states in gamers playing their games. I will now go into more detail about each characteristic.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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