The garden and the gate: flOw and the problems with Flow

Produced as companion piece to his MFA thesis, flOw is the creation of Jenova Chen as a demonstration of “Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA)”, a way to create “optimized video game experiences for different types of players” (Flow in Games). Central to this plan was the use of the concept of Flow, as presented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to allow the players to quickly enter and maintain this mental state of being fully engaged in an activity. It represents the first of Thatgamecompany’s works that have tried to purposely both allow and invoke this state in their players. Such designs, however, while useful in theory, can leave gaps when put into practice, notably in flOw.

To achieve the state of Flow is to be, for a period of time, both challenged and able to show mastery of a system. It is the point where an activity allows a participant to be matched in both skill and attention; temporarily, they are completely absorbed in what they are doing. Ideally, it should be the goal of video games, as Chen presents, to scale their difficulty in response to the player, to mold the experience such that the player, no matter they be hardcore of novice, their skills, as presented, are tested to within a “Flow Zone” that is unique to that player. They stay engaged with the game longer because the experience is shaped for each player as the session continues. Video games then, as Chen says, must be tested to remove as many  “entropies”  as possible that might remove the player from the “Flow Zone”, be they “at a micro level e.g. crashes, typos, texture flaws and bad dialogs” or ” from a macro level, flaws inside core mechanics, plot arrangement, level difficulties and overall game progression are hard to identify” (Design Flow in Games).

The term mastery is important in the consider of achieving a Flow state because of its necessity in expressing the idea. To be fully engaged in an activity requires some understanding of the activity in question. Therefore, in order for both the challenge and expression of ability in the activity to be on equal footing, the player must first have some skill to express. Such a block to achieving the Flow state might be thought of, in a metaphorical sense, as a gate; it bares those who cannot unlock it from getting through and into another area. For as long as a player, in the realm of video games, cannot play, they are either overwhelmed by the challenge of the experience or can easily accomplish it; on one extreme, it is too relaxing or produces too much anxiety (Challenge versus Skill). It is this first gate that stands before players.

In order to achieve the Flow state, no matter the adjustment of difficulty, some adjustment must be made on the part of the player. They must learn the mechanics and gain sufficient ability to match even the lowest difficultly setting; reaching a Flow state presupposes familiarity. Before the player can match even the edge of the “Flow Zone”, they need the mental associations applicable to the context in which they play. In the case of flOw, this is an understanding of the connection between the controller, be it keyboard, gamepad or some other physical abstraction or approximation, and the screen. If the player cannot activate tactile reactionary responses to visual stimuli in an appropriate timescale, then they cannot play a video game. Some time must be taken each session therefore to reacquaint a player to a system, even a known one: the bridging of what the player sees and their reaction to it must be reestablished.

Assuming a new or renewed level of familiarity, the player must progress through the gate and into a loosely defined area thought of, in a metaphorical sense, as a garden. Just as in a physical setting, a garden is designed, created and crafted, to some degree or another; certain aesthetic reactions are planned for or even wished for from visual or possibly secondary senses. This is the game as craft. Time was put into creating the audio, if any, or visual presentation of the spatial metaphors in which the player will be using for agency expression. In flOw, this is the soundscape, creature shapes and layer progression mechanics. The player is shown a world of pleasing visual and aural creation to preparation of them spending time in the garden of the game, the crafted areas. Such parts are created in such a way, and particularily in the case of flOw, to ease the player into a relaxed state and allow they to change difficulty as wanted.

The collision between these immersion elements in theory and their practice counterparts emerge in this context. For as much as flOw wants to allow players to dynamically change the difficultly, by seeking out certain colored organisms that allow transference between layers in the game, such choice removes the player from the engagement. Flow is broken when the player has moved from the garden to a gate. Instead reacting to and being a part of the game, players must analyze the situation not as part of a motion but as play ending or continuing. Using organisms to move between layers, in either offensive or defensive reactions, takes place on a conscious level in the mind of the player. Difficultly change in this context, then, is a deliberate act and therefore cannot be part of a Flow state.

By placing the tuning of difficultly in the hands of the player, the Flow state, as defined by equal parts ability and challenge, is elusive. Worry or control, opposites in their own right, complicate the experience. The player looking for greater challenge will not achieve an equilibrium nor will the one seeking relaxation. Both extremes cases find a place in flOw, yet cannot reach each other. The game will not get more challenging nor more relaxing unless the player wills it. Progression toward either pole prompts greater probability of conscious choice and removes the player from getting to the Flow state by an increasingly margin. For as long as the player must realize both worldviews in flOw, they must operate on two simultaneous levels:  that of creature and that of player controlling the creature.

Complicating the well-crafted game is this fundamental issue: the realization of the gates shape the garden. The player that sculpts the session, actively pursuing certain organisms as food and others as enemies with previous knowledge, plays not as creature but as player controlling the creature. They meta-game the experience by using the creatures as tools for their own goal; they play not with the game, but against it. The mechanics are not what allows them to experience Flow, but as competition that must be bested or defeated. The challenge is not, then, in mastery through skill, but the ability to battle the game itself; it is domination through fluency. Such players who engage in this manner do so by searching for and taking advantage of the gates to ignore the garden: the rejection of aesthetics for pure progression.

Such a problem, seen in moments in flOw itself, are central to the use of Flow in designing video games. For as much as they might be crafted to be pleasing, to allow relaxation, such an extreme must be balanced by challenge, yet not exclusive to either. Such testing and removal of “entropies”, to return to the terminology of Jenova Chen, means that the game will, hopefully, be presented as visually rewarding to look at, yet also have mechanics that will allow the player agency for skill expression. However, the conflict between these remains. To allow the player to choose the difficulty dictates an active player complementing the responses of the game, yet also means the rejection of the presentation on some level; to be fully engages means looking past both, disconnecting from what the player senses and what the player does to the brief moments of them merging. These times are rare and, although flOw demonstrates one approach to this ideal, its success comes not from promoting the Flow state itself, but more from allowing players to consider what the conditions might be to approach it.

2 thoughts on “The garden and the gate: flOw and the problems with Flow

  1. It’s funny that you wrote about this because just earlier today I was reading about how flOw was literally made to get players in flow state, and yet I remember rarely being in that state when playing the game. For one, I found the controls to imprecise to ever feel in total control of the game.

    But I think your article touched on the bigger point that the game just gives players the wrong expectations going in. It asks you to be meditative and contemplative, but the core mechanics are about timing, speed, and accuracy, which goes straight against that. I noticed myself increasingly frustrated the further I progressed into the game, because I was constantly being brought out of my “no-thought” state. Meanwhile Demon Soul’s, while being way more difficult, was way more conductive to flow states because it set the right expectations.

    1. Dan Cox

      I imagine that you have probably seen my newer post by this point, but we talked about exactly what you brought up here in the latest The School of Athens episode. Several of us agreed that, if the point of flOw was to get you into a Flow state, it might be failing pretty often at it. It’s as you said, the frustration, and I might add dynamic difficultly, get in the way of that, in a way, promise of meditation it presents: if you have to think about the game in order to progress in it, you aren’t in a Flow state.

      Because we will talk about Demon’s Souls pretty soon on the show, I’ve been looking into doing some reading about people’s opinions about the game, their experiences and how intentional the difficulty of that game might be. I encourage you write about it in contrast to flOw if only because I’m interested in what you might mean by it “[setting] the right expectations.” There is certainly a case to be made about the contract of expectations between the developer and player in both games.

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