Whenever game designers talk about flow, I’ve noticed that it’s in the context of making something more ‘fun,’ but almost everywhere outside that, it’s seen from the point of view of productivity and getting more done. Unfortunately, this focus on productivity with flow-state makes many people overthink flow. It takes the soul out of a state of being that’s supposed to help us experience things more fully and intensely.

You’ve certainly felt ~flow~ whether you knew it or not. It’s a state of energized focus and full involvement in an activity. Usually, when you’re doing something you enjoy and find challenging. The feeling of being immersed, or more colloquially “in the zone,” is what we define as “flow.”

Being in flow can also be thought of as being at peak engagement in some activity. The general idea is that if you’re more engaged, the more likely you’re to continue. Many people find that they don’t notice time passing when they’re experiencing flow.

Flow == fun == learning

According to game designer Raph Koster, the theory of fun in games essentially boils down to skill mastery. Specifically, how you drive a player towards skill mastery as they progress through a game.

Flow in game design is thought of as a progression that involves presenting a player with a challenge, getting them to a flow state and then maintaining that flow state.

flow-channel

This is what is formalized as “flow theory” in game design.

In a game, you want to present the player with a challenge above their current skill level, so they aren’t bored, but not so challenging that they feel anxiety. Since we can’t quantify such a challenge exactly, the flow channel is the range in which most players are most likely to feel flow. If a player is within this area as they progress through a game, they’re most likely to achieve a flow-state in the process.


Game developers create flow within their games using a combination of microflows and macroflows. An important caveat in all this is enabling success is a huge part of how flow is created and maintained in games.

You can read more about how micro and macro flows within games are built from Daniel who’s a game developer at https://thinkgamedesign.com/flow-theory-game-design.

Certain games like guitar hero use microflows to create virtuous cycles. They do this by letting the player experience a series of successes as they play. Then, as the player continues to succeed, the game is made a little less challenging, so the player can feel this sensation for longer and thereby experience flow for an extended period.

Through researching this, I was hoping to come across more analogies between creating flow in games and how we can use it to understand how to acheive flow in other activities or work that we do.

There’s a lot we can learn from this. First, the fact that some success criteria are essential to achieving flow suggests we need to create wins as we progress through the activity. This might come down to literal wins or simply having a positive attitude toward progress made, as in, every little bit of progress is a win.

More on this as I learn more…