As I read more and more about designing and developing games, the more frequently I come across the term “flow” or ”flow state”, especially when reading about designing game mechanics for players. The goal of this form of design is to immerse the player so deeply in the world of the game that they disconnect from the real world and lose themselves in their enjoyment of the game. This has happened to me many times, most notably during my first few days/months/years with Skyrim. We all know the stories; “I thought I was playing for 5 minutes when suddenly it was 4am/I saw the sun rising/it was Monday”, and it is that feeling of time passing effortlessly that we attribute to being in the flow state or “in the zone”.
I want to talk about flow in terms of being a games developer. As a programmer by trade, this entry on the subject will be given from the perspective of a programmer, but hopefully a lot of what I say is consistent with the experiences of artists and other creatives whose work involves similar, single-focus tasks (if this isn’t the case, please let me know). Flow is very important when it comes to the making of games; it’s when you feel at your most productive and seemingly large, complicated tasks crumble at your feet (or keyboard in my case). The real difficulty involves getting into the flow state. It’s not dissimilar to falling asleep (something I’m not great at either), you must clear your mind and lose yourself in single-focussed, abstract determination to achieve your goals without allowing anything from the outside world in.
The concept of flow comes from renowned psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi. He has written many articles, journals, and books on flow (and I recommend having a look through for yourself), but I want to focus on his components of enjoyment; the idea of going beyond pleasure and actually enjoying what you’re doing instead of just being satisfied with it. In his paper “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, Cziksentmihalyi highlights the major components of enjoyment:
- Tasks with a reasonable chance of completion
- Being able to concentrate on what we’re doing.
- Clear goals
- Immediate feedback
- Deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the frustrations and worries of everyday life.
- A sense of control over our actions
- No concern for the self
- Alteration of the concept of time, hours can pass in minutes and minutes can look like hours.
Boiling this down further, I see flow as being a combination of the following things:
- (goals which are) Achievable
- (loss of) Self
- (loss of) Time
(I see 7 and 8 as separate to 1-6 as they are caused by being in a flow state and not something you can put in place yourself to enter one)
The more of these we manage to achieve in a single session, the more likely we are to drop into a flow state during that session and be at our happiest and most productive. What I have found more recently is that I do not actually need to hit all 8 from the out to start entering a flow state. In fact, by focussing on a few I find myself hitting the others in quick succession. I want to break down a key example of getting myself into a flow state to help show how small changes to a situation or working conditions can help you enter a flow state both quickly and with relative ease.
I’ve always found it very easy to work on trains. It seems counter-intuitive that a situation with limited space, limited access to resources, limited internet and (often) heavy crowding would be the perfect place for me to enter a flow state, but I think it is within these aspects I find the small bubble of peace that allows the perfect conditions to blossom. If we consider the six most important aspects from the above list, we can see that entering a flow state on a train is relatively straightforward .
- Achievable – I can always find an achievable task as that just depends on work availability and preparation. As long as I’ve done some preparation work beforehand (updated Unity, synced with source control, downloaded a tutorial), I’ll always have something I could be doing.
- Focus – Focus is easy on a quiet train, especially when internet is absent or limited, but even on busy trains it’s possible for me to focus in on my laptop screen. For me, focus is the most important and precious aspect of our lives. Competing elements such as Facebook, Twitter, and emails are constantly trying to take as much of your focus as possible, with notifications and catchy headlines that draw your focus away. By reducing the capability of these focus-stealers to pull me away from a task, i.e. by not having internet or push notification enabled, I am able to devote my focus solely to the task at hand.
- Clarity – By setting out the task ahead of time, my goals for the period of work become clear. Clear tasks should have a good starting place, a logical process, and a well-defined end. Tasks that have vague end points, such as “polish the game” or “improve performance”, aren’t great as the task as a single, complete entity is never clear because you don’t know what the end of the task looks like.
- Results – Interestingly, by having a set period i.e. the length of the train journey, immediate feedback is always a given, as I will know if I’ve achieved our task or not when I have to get off the train (assuming I don’t miss my stop).
- Depth – Once I’ve have prepared everything, falling into deep concentration is easy when I have a single task to focus in on, thus allowing myself to fall deep into the task at hand.
- Control – Finally, it may seem as though I wouldn’t have much control over the situation as I’m on an unknown train, surrounded by unknown people. However, for me I usually feel like I have complete control over my space. It is my laptop, my table (or quarter of table), and my seat, and that is enough for me to feel like have enough control over this small bubble of mine to allow me to drop into a flow state. In fact, every time I get a train I know that if I have a charged laptop, something that play music, (working) headphones, and a clear, achievable task in mind, almost the second I switch my laptop on I am able to drop into a flow more easily than I can at both at home and in the office.
Flow represents the ultimate state for both productivity and enjoyment. As Shahid Ahmad once explained “right now there are only a certain number of books you could read in your life, and that number is less than the number of books that exist that are worth reading. By working on maximising the time you spend truly focussed, you maximise the amount of time you have available to achieve as much as possible”. As far as improving my own ability to enter a flow state goes, I’ve just moved to a new house and I’m using the unpacking time as an opportunity to find a new pattern to get into a flow state every time I start work on my home PC. I already have certain types of music (trap and electro-swing) and saved playlists that always help me enter a flow state; clearly the next step is turning my office into a train compartment.