The Futile Search For Flow

There is a search in game design right now, a feverish scavenger hunt to pin down a holy grail of game design: flow.

Flow is generally defined as being "in the zone," in a state where your full attention is devoted to whatever task you happen to be doing. Of course, this definition excludes media which explicitly avoids or subverts flow states, as eloquently pointed out by Lana Polansky in her critique Against Flow. Flow is still accepted out of hand in many circles despite these flaws, though, with little acknowledgement that this state we seek may be wrong.

Flow as is serves as a justification to continue with existing design structures because they work, a denouncement of game design that seeks to undermine or directly contradict the notion that games should be more than busywork. Indeed, the original definition of a flow state is was coined to refer to people working in creative or labor-intensive industries in the post-war period. Games are generally not productive, so using this terminology within the gaming context seems misguided at best and horribly cynical at worst.

This implies a need for some other design goal to aim for. After all play, should not be work, and our engagement with games should involve us more than getting "in the zone". Focusing purely on flow leads to a textureless, overpolished experience, and we deserve more. We deserve a game as richly textured as Mulata de Tal, or The Sower, or El Topo.

Negative/Positive Space

In art, there is a concept of duality known as positive and negative space.

Positive space is the space occupied by objects. It's best described as space that is "filled"; that is to say, anything that disrupts the formless expanse is considered positive space. Characters, structures, objects are all representations of positive space.

Conversely, negative space is the space either unoccupied by objects, or the space within an object (if the object is sufficiently large and the space is significantly empty). For example, the space surrounding a character might be negative space, or the space inside of a sufficiently large circle. Tim Sale's depiction of Superman, for example, uses negative space between the outer lines of the head and the inner features to give Superman a face that makes you think of innocence, and youth, and babies, and other things that relate to smooth expansive faces.

While it's most readily apparent in visual art, positive/negative space also present in the classical dramatic structure of conflict-climax-conclusion. The negative space of conflict and conclusion shape the climax that is at the heart of the story; without the preceding and succeeding elements, the climax would have no function, no purpose to the viewer.

This duality always exists, no matter how much we try to fight it.

Using Space Effectively

In any piece of art, regardless of medium, the usage of positive and negative space is important. It's the core of all artistic endeavor, and it's where individual creativity shines.

If a piece of media is perfectly balanced between the positive and negative, it can achieve what we consider to be the flow state more readily than a piece of media that fluctuates. Players that the game is designed for will find themselves slipping into an addiction where they play constantly and with relatively little fatigue.

This isn't an effect use of space, however. As mentioned before, a good piece of media should be textural; that is, we feel the landscape of the design and its ups and downs. Designing around our current definition of flow state is a removal of texture. It seeks to create a flat experience across all players, and in the process feels exactly that: flat. Games like Far Cry 4 follow this model, and while they are fine games, they lack that character which makes them distinguishable from their peers.

Think back on the most memorable game or experience you've had in a game. Is it the puzzles in Braid? The opening sequence of Fez? The platforming of Uncharted? Probably not, despite all of these things (usually) causing flow states within their players.

Instead, you remember the extremes. You remember the gut punch ending of Braid, which depending on who you ask is about atom bombs or sexual assault. You remember the frustratingly challenging puzzles of late-game Fez, which often required you to take notes and connect the dots between many different areas. You remember gun jamming in Far Cry 2, the unbalanced superweapons of Command and Conquer, the difficult early portions of Earthbound.

Continuous flow, designing around perpetually placing players in a state of full attention and pleasure, is antithetical to the expression of emotional meaning and purpose. It is little more than soma, a way to pacify players by manipulating a psychological state. We remember the highs and lows more than we remember that pleasant middle, and games that focus on evoking a flow state are often mediocre precisely because they don't oscillate.

Elasticity of Flow

If we are to design using flow, then, we should harness the inherent gap between the emotionless (or, rather, single-emotion) nature of flow and the emotional nature of narrative.

Take Papers, Please. It pushes players to enter the flow state through its mechanical design - encouraging you to read through and verify border documents efficiently and accurately - and then subverts that flow state through its narrative. You are meant to feel bad precisely because you entered a flow state. You lost yourself to the autonomous nature of your work, and thus lost out on the emotional and political turbulence happening around you.

Flow states, then, are purposeless without something to anchor them that sits outside of the flow state. After all, the original meaning of flow was used to refer to primarily productive work, rather than play, and the created object acts as such an anchor. The fact that we apply this notion to something intended to be non-productive is, frankly, sort of disturbing; it's an acknowledgement that the majority of what games are is work that has no pay-off, and that we should strive to make that work as painless as possible. Why do we hold that up as a virtue, an ideal to encourage in other designers?

Instead of aiming for this, we should think of flow as the middle state between the extremes of positive and negative space. We want to spend as little time there as possible, as it means we are either not engaging our audience directly and forcing them to consider what they do (positive), or we are not building up tension and setting the stage for effective emotional work (negative). It is empty emotional space.

Where Flow Works

Flow does work in a few specific genres, so while its use in the majority of games is inappropriate, it does have its place.

Consider Counter-Strike. If you're good, sometimes a round will go perfectly; every shot will seem to find home, and everything you do will push the objective. This is a flow state, but it's separate from a single-player flow state in that its greatest influence is not the design of the game - although it's certainly the second greatest - but other players. If you are playing against players far above your skill level, you will never enter that flow state.

We can call this "competitive flow", as it's prevalent across virtually every competitive medium. It differs from traditional flow in that it's primarily induced by playing against players of equal or lesser skill. Winning is, inherently, the best reward you can get in a competition, so playing against bad players and winning effortlessly can make you feel like you are in a flow state, despite traditional flow dictating this lack of challenge as "boring." It's also interesting to note that this only happens if you are playing against other players that you know or think are human; if you are playing against bots, the flow state suddenly dissipates. The lust for victory over your fellow people supersedes boredom.

Then there's "arcade flow." Arcade games are, perhaps, the only genre of videogames in which a flow state is absolutely ideal, as you want players to be able to master your game and play it well. When you finally master a game like DoDonPachi, and you can effortlessly weave your way through the bullet patterns from start to finish, you feel accomplished in a way that no narrative game can hope to match with its own version of flow.

Dyad is a personal favorite. It starts out simple, layering mechanics slowly over the course of the game, until you're finally asked to perform incredibly difficult challenges. It eventually reaches the point where you will never be able to progress unless you enter a flow state influenced primarily by sound, as the game grows so colorful and psychedelic that discerning screen elements becomes nearly impossible. It shares this quality with many games by Jeff Minter, such as the excellent Space Giraffe.

This sort of focus on flow is only possible because arcade games are the purest expression of mechanical design. They do not need to have a narrative in the same way that AAA blockbuster releases do; they only have to eat your quarters and keep you coming back for more. Of course, these games do benefit from not staying in flow all the time - you still want the challenge to be steep enough to pull the player out of the experience sometimes - but they are perhaps the only genre that seeks to maintain a flow state for as long as possible.

Of course, these particular flow states make up only a small portion of everything gaming has to offer, and they fit within a very specific context where flow is an expression more of the player's skill than of their emotional or mental state. Most games inherently lack that skill requirement, and so thus flow doesn't make much sense as a design goal.

Discarding Flow

Our definition and use of flow is damaging, not just to good design but also to the medium at large. It enshrines a single psychological concept as the ideal, when games should aim to be more than just ecstatic. Games need to violate norms, surprise us in interesting ways, and challenge our presuppositions about what the medium can do.

Without those challenges, games are textureless. And there's nothing worse than a game which feels like nothing at all.

Related Reading
  • Against Flow by Lana Polansky. An excellent piece that also argues for the abolition of flow as a desirable game state. Informed parts of this piece. Highly recommended.
  • Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design by Sean Baron. Lays down a framework for understanding flow that is simple and clear.
  • Flow: The Secret to Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The original and enduring definition of flow (well, the TED talk truncation of it), and an incredibly interesting discussion of psychology beside. Absolutely required in order to understand what flow is.

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