Tuesday 27 May 2014

GUEST BLOG: Go With the Flow - A Fresh Look at Old Concepts

I suspect that some of you reading this will think “Why talk about something as obvious as flow when everybody in the industry understands the concept and gets it right?”
Well, believe it or not, there’s way more to flow than people in the industry might imagine.

Only the other week, Keith Stuart talked in The Guardian about the concept of flow as one of the reasons people find games like Candy Crush so compelling (

When players are so completely engaged with a game, to the extent that they don't even hear you when you call them or acknowledge you when you talk to them, there’s a very good chance that they’re experiencing flow in the game play. And when an individual is experiencing flow, they’re completely fixated on the task of playing the game, and you’ll find it pretty hard to break their concentration.

I remember late last year consulting at a large game developers studio and the fire alarm went off - it was lunchtime and a few employees were playing a game in the games room during their break. Despite the piecing sound of the alarm, they didn’t even look up from their games and the boss of the company had to literally go in and drag them out.

So you can see how flow, the state of utter engagement in gaming, can certainly account for how compelling video game playing can be.
A really great piece of work that I would recommend to developers is by Boyle et al (2012) – ‘Engagement in digital entertainment games: A systematic review’ - who initially uncovered a staggering 20,000 papers related to engagement, and then drilled this number down to 55 key papers to review.

The authors describe flow as the most influential construct used to explain the subjective emotional experience and optimal state of pleasure experienced in video game play. They highlight how flow is actually quite a complex construct involving eight different components. They maintain that central to the concept, is that the experience is intrinsically rewarding and enables immersion in the game, and they suggest that flow as a state evokes high levels of concentration and allows the player to have a sense of control, have clearly defined goals as well as providing direct feedback.
Further to this, is the motivation to escape the real world, because flow in gaming does offer opportunities to carry out behaviours not possible in the real world!

Last year I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the Charlie Brooker documentary ‘How Video Games Changed the World’. In the documentary I talked about the concept of flow and this really hit home with many gamers who watched the programme. In the weeks after, I had loads of emails from gamers who were quite relieved to understand what was happening to them when they were in this almost altered state of mind, completely fixated on a game.

Following the programme a blogger posted the stills of my contribution about flow on tumblr and so far nearly 60,000 people have reblogged or commented. ( As a psychologist, what this tells me is that gamers really want to understand what’s happening to them when they’re engaged in virtual worlds and that they very much want developers to make games that enhance this state for them, as they garner immense pleasure and contentment from the experience.

Alex Meredith, Cyberpsychologist from Nottingham Trent University says "Developers can really embrace the concept of flow and incorporate it into the development of their games, within ethical parameters of course, and of particular interest is how flow impacts on motivation to play and the sense of self during game play and cathartic release.”

And there’s a lot more to the concept of flow in video games that psychologists like myself are still uncovering, I’m especially interested in the group flow and recently saw a great presentation by Linda Kaye of Edge Hill University who examined the extent to which group flow experiences (versus solo flow experiences) impact on post-play positive effect. The results of her work indicate that post-play positive effect was heightened in group flow, something which is particularly interesting when designing for collaborative play.

At this year’s Evolve, on the first day of the Develop Conference, as part of the psychology track, a number of leading psychologists will join me to look at what it means to develop games that enhance this flow experience, and together we’ll be offering some ethical take-away tips about how to build in strategies that evoke the flow state in gamers and really heighten the gaming experience.
Berni Good is a psychologist who specialises in Cyberpsychology, particularly in video games and is the founder of Cyberpsychologist  Limited, This year Berni will curate the psychology track at Evolve which will see some of the leading psychologists and experts in the field of psychology in video games talk and give amazing insights and tips into how to develop games incorporating psychology to really heighten the experience for the gamer. 

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