Why Games Are So Engaging and Addicting: The Flow State Part 1

Why Games Are So Engaging and Addicting: The Flow State Part 1

You take a break from writing an essay for school to play one of your favorite games, Civilization 6. You tell yourself it will only be thirty minutes.

Suddenly, you’re jettisoned out of your zone by some timer. Is your alarm going off? Whoops. Your "writing break" at 11:00 p.m. turned into a 3-day long gaming abyss. And you had no idea.

You entered what many gamers call the flow state, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defines as a state in which all worldly matters other than the activity you're doing seem to dissipate, and you become fully immersed in the present. During flow, you pay less attention to outside negative anxieties and stressors as your consciousness is filled entirely with the current activity. You have optimal experiences.

Wouldn't it be great if we could feel it more? But sadly, procrastinating on your writing gave you a zero for your essay and now you have to work extra hard in school. That means no Civilization 6 and, therefore no flow.

This was the situation I was in two years ago. I loved video and board games because I almost always entered flow. While playing games, the anxieties and stressors of school drifted away. It was so enjoyable I could play for upwards of 3 hours a day on a school night. School learning didn’t provide nearly the same level of flow.

But with my extra time during the pandemic, I started playing games so much I experienced what Game Scientist Jane McGonigal calls “Gamer Regret;” I began regretting what I was missing out on in the real world. I realized that despite games incredible flow inducing nature, their rewards are superficial compared to real life.

As proud as I am of my Pink Suit in H1Z1 that definitely didn't cost me $60 of real-life money, it doesn't lead to any real-life benefit. Similarly, my hundreds of hours building nuclear weaponry as Gandhi in Civilization 6 and even the thousands of hours playing Minecraft bed wars with my friends has no real life translation. Playing games usually can only provide enjoyable experiences.

Life rewards, however, are infinite.

One insight gained from reading like “journey before destination” can last forever. A finished project or deliverable like a edited documentary can form the building blocks of future work and career advancement. And if you are considering a career that requires a degree, you need to show up for your schoolwork.

Clearly, we need to find a way to make real life activities more enjoyable, so we don't feel the need to distract ourselves with games. Luckily our time spent playing games wasn’t entirely wasted. Except for my short excursion into Huniepop. Those hours are never coming back.

Our time playing games wasn’t wasted because it gives us insight into how to ask the most important question I’m asking more often in my life. If you take away one thing from this video, take away this: “How can I make this into a game?”

To answer this we can take insight from the games we love by analyzing what makes them so conducive for flow. Then we can apply these differences to real life through the process of gamification, the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world productive activities. In essence we can make our real life into a game.

Imagine a world where every activity is a flow experience? Not just the times we are playing games but also while writing your essay. Every one of your activities come together to provide a beautiful universal state of flow.

You're in the zone all the time.

To learn how we can do this, we're first going to define what a game is, how they foster flow, and then how we can gamify our own lives with these differences in mind to enter flow in the activities, we struggle to find enjoyment in.

What is a Game?

To analyze games for what makes them so conducive to flow, we first need to understand what a game even is.

According to Bernard Suit, philosopher and game studier, a game is anything where there is a "voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

They typically have five things:

  • A goal (non-trivial and achievable)
  • Rules (some form of arbitrary externally imposed constraints)
  • A feedback system (clear unambiguous feedback toward goals)
  • Voluntary participation
  • A gameplay loop (the core flow of action, progression, reward inside of a game)

One easy example is chess. Chess as a game is incredibly simple. And yet, for centuries it has been one of the most consistent creators of flow in anyone who develops a passion for playing it. Mainly, old people who have nothing better to do with their time.

The goal is to checkmate the other side's king. The rules define how you can move your pieces to do so. The feedback comes from the other players' movements and your progress towards checkmate. At least I hope there is voluntary participation. And finally, the gameplay loop is formed from each player's individual turn and each chess game as a whole.

Almost any game can be assessed through each of these five things.

How do Games Facilitate Entrance Into The Flow State?

When I mention games from now on, I want you to assume I'm talking about well-designed games like Civilization 6, Stardew Valley, or The Witcher 3. I'm not talking about something like Fallout 76. It's the great games that facilitate entrance into the flow state and, therefore interest us in this inquiry.

To understand how, we need to go through the elements to entering flow and see how games by their nature fulfill these elements. Then we can learn how to apply our insights to our own lives.

In his book, Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines eight general elements for entering the flow state. I distilled the elements into the framework ACTIONS. I called it this because if you fulfill all of the seven elements of it, you can take any action with confidence it can become a flow experience.

Attend (Attend only to information which matters)

Clarify (Create clear completable goals and rules)

Tao (Stay in the Goldilocks zone)

Iterate (Receive unambiguous feedback)

Operate (Sense of control over actions)

Non-attachment with time (Detachment from time)

Self-goal (Foster an Autotelic personality)

Now let's go through each of the elements of ACTIONS and ask how most games facilitate their fulfillment. While we will go through each element as if it was stand-alone, it's essential to understand that the elements are all highly interconnected and related. I talk about them individually for clarity purposes.

Games Facilitate Our Attention Towards Them

The first element of flow in ACTIONS is A for attend; attend only to information that matters for a given activity. As we will get to, a game's combination of goals and rules provides a clear foundation to structure our attention around. With this anchor for our attention, players can easily lose themselves in a game.

This is one of the main things that makes games so enjoyable. When we attend fully to an activity there is no room in consciousness for everything else. This stops negative information which could cause feelings of anxiety, boredom, or apathy to enter. It’s no wonder we often turn to games when we experience feelings of anxiety or boredom like many students do toward their schoolwork.

Of course, some games are pleasurable because they don't require your full attention. Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing New Horizons were games I played all the time when my brain felt like a piece of playdough that got stepped on too many times. That tends to happen when you're forced to read "Classic American Literature" in AP Literature against your will for a year.

Nonetheless, most games require our full-fledged attention to play well. For example, Total War Warhammer 2 among other things requires you to attend to your number of troops, your gold, and of course, how much food you have as the most attractive leader in the game Grom The Paunch.

It’s games clear completable goals and rules that provide a foundation for us to structure our attention.

Games Have Clear Completable Goals And Rules

The second element of flow in ACTIONS is C for Clarity; create clear completable goals and rules. Games foster this because, by definition, they must have clear hierarchies of goal(s) that are non-trivial and achievable. This allows the players to align their goals with the games, bringing order to consciousness.

First, games goals are often clear and epic, a gamer term for something awesome in proportion and often surprising. Epic goals foster flow because they motivate us to attend to the game.

In Civilization 6, for example, the goal is generally to achieve one of the victory conditions as your chosen civilization: science, religion, culture, domination, or diplomacy. But it's epic because you play as an influential historical figure looking to take your civilization from the depths of the stone age to the glory of the information age. And if your playing the pacifist Gandhi you can surprise the world with your epic power by building up your stockade of nuclear weaponry to rule the rest of civilization with an iron fist.

Because games have a hierarchy of goals that indicate your progress in a larger overarching goal players can take advantage of the Goal gradient hypothesis. The goal gradient hypothesis describes how we tend to work harder and go faster the closer we perceive ourselves to finishing a goal.

The best games work with this effect by creating many subgoals to motivate players to a larger overarching goal. They break the finish line, so we can benefit from the gradient in multiple mini-finish lines. In Civ 6, for example, while striving for a science victory the amount of science you generate becomes a prominent subgoal, as well as everything that goes into generating more science, like building libraries, growing cities, or building wonders. Because apparently, all that it takes to become more scientific is BOOKS!

Second, games goals are completable. Players in Civ 6 know it’s possible to win the game. They just need to find a strategy to do so. This motivates them to overcome their failures as they know there is a way to reach their goal.

Finally, games give clear rules that clarify how you progress toward these goals and subgoals. Usually, these rules create unnecessary obstacles the player has to overcome to achieve their goal. For example, in Civ 6 the main goal is to win through one of the victory conditions. Without rules to constrain how this is done, I could simply pick a Civilization, load the map, and VICTORY!

Thank you, thank you. I have been practicing quite a lot in my spare time.

Without rules to constrain behavior, there is no challenge to the game. The combination of goals and rules provides a challenge and a foundation to structure our attention around. But in order for the goals and rules to engage they must combine to create an activity that falls inside of our Goldilocks zone.

Games By Their Nature Facilitate Entrance Into The Goldilocks zone

The third element of flow in ACTIONS is T for Tao; an activity must fall inside of our Goldilocks zone, the zone in which the challenge of an activity and the relevant skills you bring to it are in balance. The activity must not be so difficult you give up, like writing an essay in Chinese, but not so easy it’s boring, like counting to 100. We want it to be just challenging enough to stay engaged but not so challenging we become frustrated.

This is why I use the word Tao to summarize the element in ACTIONS. The Tao is a Daoist concept that brings forth the idea all activities have a balance point for each individual person. Similarly, every activity has a corresponding Goldilocks zone where there is a balance between challenge and the players corresponding skills.

Games facilitate entrance into the Goldilocks zone for two main reasons:

  1. Most naturally start players in their goldilocks zone
  2. They respond to players shifting Goldilocks Zone

Let’s go over each.

Most Games Naturally Start Players In Their Goldilocks Zone

When starting a game, the player has no background knowledge in the games goals and rules. Thus they have a clear starting point for where to structure their attention. It’s easy to enter flow.

Plus some games assess a players background in a game before starting to help them get into their Goldilocks Zone. Civilization 6, for instance, normally has an advisor guide players through the game if they are a beginner. However, those familiar with the game have the choice of turning the advisor off.

Personally, I turned her off even when I was a beginner. She sounds like a evil mix between a lawn mower and a bluebird.

Games Respond To Players Shifting Goldilocks Zone

As you do an activity more and more and your skills for that activity increase and your Goldilocks zone will naturally shift. Therefore done in the same way, the activity won't be flow inducing.

To keep entering flow inside the activity, you must shift the challenge in response to your changing. Most games do this in two ways:

  1. Increasing difficulty
  2. Increasing complexity
Increasing Difficulty

The easiest and most classic way to increase challenge is through increasing difficulty. In this context, difficulty is making the game more difficult without adding complexity. This could be through raising the mode in The Witcher 3 all the way up to the hardest and aptly named “Blood and Bones.” Many games give this option allowing for players to shift difficulty to their needs. Except, Dark Souls; that game is hard enough as it is.

Increasing Complexity

The second yet harder method for increasing challenge is by adding complexity to the game through emergence. Emergence occurs when the whole is different from the sum of its individual parts. Games do this by defining a set of rules that, while simple to understand and learn, come together to create incredible complexity and therefore challenge.

Civilization 6, for example, on the outside is pretty simple. You play one civilization, on a randomly generated map with a defined number of other civilizations, either player or NPC controlled, and can win through five separate victory conditions.

However, complexity is created from the emergence of the practically infinite combinations of maps, civilizations, and victory paths that can occur inside of it. So in effect, as players' relevant skill level increases, the complexity of the game increases through the players' greater understanding. This keeps players in their Goldilocks Zone.

However, it doesn’t matter how well challenge and a players relevant skills are balanced if the player doesn’t have a way of measuring progress toward their goals.

Games Provide Immediate Unambiguous Feedback

The fourth element of flow in ACTIONS is I for Iterate, immediate unambiguous feedback on how a player is progressing toward their chosen goals and subgoals allows players to iterate in an activity. Games facilitate this through their clear systems for giving players feedback on the goal(s) of the game. These systems could be progress bars, value metrics like gold, coins, or the number of monster heads you have severed in The Witcher 3; I know, it’s a brutal game. This feedback allows players to structure their attention around improving in the game.

The speed of feedback is the real key here. One of the reasons school can be so demotivating is the feedback is horrendous. Some of my tests at school didn't get graded until three weeks after I took them, and I wasn't allowed to see what answers I got right or wrong. Particularly in video games, however, feedback is incredibly quick and crystal clear.

Feedback also motivates players in games through development and accomplishment, which could take the form of rewards, badges, and milestone unlocks, including access to new areas, new skills, and more. Studies show that rewards are much more pleasurable to receive when they are intermittent and novel rather than predictable and adapted. A desert of some nice Crème Brulee wouldn't be nearly as good if you had it every night, at the same time and same place. Doesn’t mean I’m not tempted though.

Games create development and accomplishment in a variety of ways. In Civilization 6, players always have a random chance to discover a natural wonder, a tribal hut with a random reward, or another civilization entirely. In Monster Hunter World, you gain access to new areas and new monsters to fight as you progress in the game. And in RPGs Like Divinity Original Sin II you unlock new skills and stat points every time you level up.

In order for us to be motivated by feedback, however, we need to feel we are in control of the actions with progress us toward our goals.

Games Promote a Sense of Control Over Your Actions

The fifth element of flow in ACTIONS is O for Operate, like an operator you feel in control of your actions in an activity. It doesn't matter the goals, rules, challenges, and feedback of the game in entering flow if the player doesn't feel like they control their actions in the pursuit of their goal. There’s nothing worse than reaching a goal or receiving a reward for something you don’t feel you worked for. It’s like getting the most improved reward at your high school award ceremony.

Games naturally make players feel in control by giving their actions a direct influence on the game state. In civilization six, your actions directly influence the state of the game, whether through choosing your next tech tree goal, attacking another civilization, or making insane demands of trade towards Teddy Rossevelt to exercise your secret fascist personality. That last one might just be me. This motivates players to attend to the game because they believe their actions directly affect their progress toward their goals.

In addition, games give players a sense of control because there is usually no extrinsic reason to play a game. You don't have to play a game. Most people play games because they are fun. Unless they do it professionally. I hope you voluntarily choose to play a game.

While we voluntarily choose to play games, that doesn't mean we realize eight hours will drift by just like that. And yet that is what often happens because of how detached we become from time.

Games Alter Your Sense of Time

The sixth element of flow in ACTIONS is N for Nonattachment with time, a person detaches from time and becomes fully immersed in the present moment. This is half an effect of being in flow and half an element that aids entrance. Because games are made to be incredibly engaging, they often cause us to lose a sense of time while playing them. This is what makes you say, "only one more turn" in Civilization 6 just to find yourself jolted out of flow by your alarm “3 days later.” Hours go by in what seems like minutes.

Games facilitate this by making you lose the need to attend to time in the first place.

We are usually hyperaware of the time because it often determines what activity we should be doing. Our classes for school, our homework assignments, and our tests all occur on a schedule as well as many other things. This keeps many from enveloping themselves in the present moment because their consciousness is full of anxieties, stressors, and other negative thoughts from future or past activities.

But while playing games, there is no need to overly attend to the time in the real world. I don't have to focus on anything else while mercilessly murdering people in Kingdom Come Deliverance. Because of this, games invite players to lose themselves in the game world and focus only on the present moment. Time flows through you.

This brings us to our last element of flow. This element makes not only altering the sense of time easier but all the other flow elements easier to foster.

Games Foster An Autotelic personality

The seventh and last element of flow in ACTIONS is S for Self-goal, coming at activities with more intrinsic motivation by fostering an autotelic personality. Autotelic comes from the combination of two Greek words, "Auto" meaning self, and "telic" meaning goal. A self-goal. In his book, Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that developing an autotelic personality means coming at most of lives activities with the inherent joy of doing them in itself.

Those who fully succeed in this develop a non-self-conscious individualism. They have a strongly directed purpose but are not self-seeking. They try to do their best in all circumstances simply for the sake of doing their best, not to deeply introspect on themselves and turn every situation into a learning experience.

Developing an Autotelic personality makes it easier to enter flow for four main reasons:

  1. You are more likely to feel personally responsible for your goals and, therefore, in control of your actions.
  2. You aren't as concerned with your self and therefore have more space in consciousness to attend to an activity.
  3. You do activities more for the inherent joy of doing them in themselves and therefore develop a nonattachment to time.

Games facilitate an autotelic personality because we usually play games for ourselves. Unless your playing Huniepop. You better have some extrinsic reason to play Huniepop, or I will severely judge you.

Alongside an autotelic personality, games also promote a Gameful mindset, a mindset that promotes pursuing your goals with a willingness to fail. Gamers intuitively understand that it often takes many, many failures to lead to success.

Think Super Mario Bros, for example. To progress in Mario, you have to fail over and over and over again. But each death teaches you how to possibly make it past that section next time. And it builds your xenophobic hatred of Goombahs.

Because of this, you don't run from failure but rather seek optional challenges with the knowledge they will lead to more improvement. This mindset helps build an autotelic personality because you don't shudder from difficult challenges. You see them as an opportunity for progressing in the game.

Now you know the seven elements of entering flow and how games promote them. Before we move on to how you can integrate this knowledge by gamifying your real life to enter flow, we should discuss the secret eighth element to entering the flow state.

Watching Avatar The Last Airbender eight separate times. Get it, elements. Ehh... Nobody finds me funny. The secret eighth element is understanding your unique KSAOs.

Understanding Your Unique KSAOs

While the elements to flow remain constant across different players, Players will experience different levels of flow from the same game. This is because each player comes to the game with different KSAOs, knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs), where "other" typically includes traits like personality, attitudes, and interests. This causes players to experience different flow levels from the same game design.

I might enter flow easily while burning my Sims to death in the Sims 4. You might enter flow by collecting Acorns in Animal Crossing. It all depends on our unique KSAOs. Understanding your unique KSAOs is crucial because it gives insight into the types of games you will enter flow more readily in.

With this secret 10th element and the nine other elements discussed earlier, we are finally ready to discuss how we can gamify our life to enter flow more consistently Check out part 2 of this series to learn how!