The Flow in Games
What motivates players to keep playing
The question how players can be intrinsically motivated to play or keep playing a game is the core of game design. McGonigal argues that players always try to reach the limits of their ability instinctively. During the course of a game, players cease to think and act reasonably compared to real-world practices. Instead, they seem to dive into the virtual world and start to focus on the peculiar reality of the game. This “narrowing of consciousness” is considered to be achievement-oriented motivation. That is why Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow has become the fundamental notion in the context of game design. As Csikszentmihalyi has proven in his studies, the large majority of people does not perceive playing as an effort, even if it is intellectually challenging like chess. He describes the state of flow is an autotelicexperience that is “the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement” and “heavily concentrate on the game blocking out their environment completely”.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow happens in the moment when the opportunity to do something is in balance with the personal capabilities to pursue this task. In other words, when a person perceives the tasks as too challenging for his own capabilities, it results in stress. This stress is experienced either as worry or even anxiety depending on how big the gap between capability and the executed task is. On the other side, a person experiences boredom when his skills exceed the chances to make use of them. In extreme cases this can also result in anxiety. So to speak, the autotelic experience is in the middle between worry and boredom where a conscious intervention of the player is not required. This state can be seen as a merging of self and environment where the person in flow has the feeling of control of his actions. Castronova translates this theory into the game context: “Some of the critical elements for inducing flow are immediate feedback, a clear sense of objectives and failure states, and a challenge level that is not too easy or too hard.” Although this explanation is far from being coherent, it sets the fundamental requirements for a flow-like experience while playing a game. Castronova argues that these elements are a recipe for game happiness. In a broader sense, players like to get better at what they do and learn how the game works. Beside the sheer entertainment, this feeling of ‘working towards mastery’ is a core element of almost every game.
However, the flow model has its limits because neither personal skills nor the executed task can be judged objectively. The state of flow largely depends on the personal perception. Csikszentmihalyi’s approach only relies on the optimal fit of the degree of difficulty and a person’s capability. This only leads to ideal motivation when skills and goals are congruent with the personal motives. The state of flow is only reached if the personal attitude is supported by the affective preferences of the person and is not undermined by rival motivational preferences. Therefore, one can define intrinsic motivation as the congruence of explicit, self-assessed motives and implicit, rather unconscious motives. In other words, rational intentions and the emotional state of a person have to fit in order to reach intrinsic motivation – otherwise volition is needed to reach the goal. This extension to the notion of flow is important for the product development of many gamified productsbecause there are a lot of unconscious processesat play when it comes to social interactions among strangers. The challenge is to create flow-like experiences that are integrated in the daily routines of the user.