Flow, as conceptualized by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a unique mental state which the individual experiencing it becomes fully immersed in an activity due to a pleasant sense of involvement, energized focus and desire to successfully meet its goals. The concept arose from the question of why “people perform time-consuming, difficult and often dangerous activities” (Csikszentmihalyi, 600) without any extrinsic or tangible rewards, which Csizszentmihalyi and his peers attempted to investigate by conducting extensive interviews with hundreds of artists, athletes, chess players and rock climbers.
They consistently found that these individuals experienced a subjective sense of enjoyment that provides the motivation to pursue said activities again, which led to the above concept termed as the “flow experience. ” Currently, some video game designers have turned towards the use of pattern language as conceptualized by urban design theorist and architect Christopher Alexander in order to achieve the ideals of the “flow experience,” that could hypothetically generate the kind of immersive and pleasurable experience that would generate compelling play experiences that make for addictive video games.
“Pattern language” as conceived by Alexander is a kind of generative grammar that permits ideal designs to be created on any conceivable scale, and circumvent some of the challenges inherent in attempting to design large-scale environments, buildings and urban landscapes. Alexander repudiates the notion of organic or evolutionary urban design with the statement that “a city is not a tree. ” In an essay of the same name, Alexander contends that there are two problematic approaches to design.
The first is the natural city (i.e. “the city as a tree”) which emerges spontaneously. This is not entirely a bad thing, as natural cities merely evolve to meet the needs of their inhabitants, but Alexander’s contention with them is that their weaknesses or shortcomings arise as a result of unplanned design. The other extreme is that of the artificial city, which emerges from a macro-design that attempts to address needs through anticipation rather than emergence. Game designers have come to understand that Alexander’s theories also apply to their own work.
Challenges and activities within a video game that are constructed as part of a rigorously planned gaming experience are problematic simply because it is unrealistic to presume that all players are identical. Certainly different players have varying levels of competency, respond to the pressures of game rules differently and warm up to different kinds of tasks. Therefore, a successful flow experience can only be attained through adaptive and generative designs that adjust themselves to meet these variable traits.
Csikszentmihalyi posits that the proper accompaniments of flow are clearly defined goals that are met through tasks that require high levels of concentration on limited fields of attention such that the individual’s consciousness merges with that of the activity being performed an all other perceptual states become subjected to the experience all while receiving a highly fulfilling amount of feedback from the activity. Ultimately, the individual experiences control and a high sense of agency, without feeling frustration from any obstacles encountered in the activity in question.
Independent game designer Tim Ryan best articulates the points in which flow experience theory apply to gaming: a flow experience means hitting a sweet spot: the gameplay becomes satisfying and commands the compulsion for continued play because the player feels that despite the fact that the entire experience is digital artifice, he or she feels a sense of immersion and escapism that results from concentration and a merging of their consciousness with the game avatar.
Furthermore, there is a continued reason to play because that the levels and gameplay are generated in such a manner as to provide a highly fulfilling level of challenge.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly; Abuhamdeh, Sami & Jeanne Nakamura. “Flow” Alexander, Christopher. “A City is Not A Tree. ”Architectural Forum, 122, April-May 1965, pp. 58-62. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from: http://www. patternlanguage. com/archives/alexander1. htm Ryan, Tim. “Beginning Level Design, Part 1: Level Design Theory. ” Gamasutra, 16 April 1999. Retrieved October 14, 2008 from: http://www. gamasutra. com/features/19990416/level_design_01. htm