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Do We Need Flow to Have Fun?

For many gamers, the nature of fun in a game seems tied in with how difficult it is. If the game is too challenging or too easy, it risks bringing the player out of the experience. Although some games allow players to manually alter the “difficulty,” others have found results by significantly altering the built in rules and mechanics of the game, such as the punishment for player character death, which Phill Cameron does a great job of exploring in Cheating Death.

Scholars of games studies frequently cite the state of flow as a property that video games excel at. Originally coined by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, flow is essentially “the state of deep absorption in an activity wherein people achieve an optimally enjoyable experience and lose self-awareness.” Since the nineties, researchers have been examining how video games create flow, which inherently requires a balance between challenge and skill that inherently comes from balanced difficulty. My favorite example of flow in gaming tends to be driving/racing games – I usually play them specifically to achieve the feeling of being completely immersed, as I’m sure many others who play them can attest to.

According to Professor Seunga Jin’s I Feel Present. Therefore, I Experience Flow, playful gamers are more likely to experience flow because they feel more original and creative. Also, more skilled players tend to require greater challenges in order to achieve the feeling of flow, whereas players with moderate skill levels require more moderate challenges. (2001)

Seunga glosses over some of the more obscure behaviors of game players, such as speed running and other forms of “superplay,” or mastery of a game through performance (from James Newman’s wonderful book Playing with Videogames). It’s these behaviors that many gamers seem to achieve an experience different from the traditional understanding of flow. To achieve flow, game play shouldn’t be too challenging, players should be focused but not too focused, and they should set goals that have clear and immediate feedback.

Instead, superplayers tend to set far-off goals, use laser-focus that often ruins their immersion, and utilize a combination of skills that either entirely eliminate any challenges or heighten it to uncomfortable levels. This can be seen in everything from speed runs themselves, to loot-hunting, to micromanaging in RTS/MOBA like Starcraft or League of Legends. For this type of high level play, the fun doesn’t seem to come from the act of playing the game, but instead it comes from the act of competing and engaging with the community that is watching and participating with you.

Dr. Linda Kaye (as cited by Mike Rose) touched on the idea of group flow through cooperative experience, but I believe there’s something to be said for the experience of group flow through competition. Feedback is an important part of flow, because it gives the performer (athlete or gamer) information without taking them out of their immersion in the activity. This type of feedback can be seen in video game genres like FPS, RTS and MOBA, but it’s absent from more repetitive loot-hunting games like Diablo or Borderlands.

This lets us question whether flow is essential to having fun with a game. Is it possible to achieve flow in Diablo? Sure. Is it essential to having fun while playing it? No. Instead, having fun is Diablo is often tied to how satisfied you are with constantly setting up new challenges for yourself.

In Diablo 3, there is always an upgrade to the items you are using, or a higher difficulty/rift level to fight. The game doesn’t throw these in your face (you can easily coast through the story on normal) but it definitely encourages you to keep pushing on the limits of your character. To get significantly better gear, you usually have to play at the border of what your character is able to do, and risk dying a lot.

As Phill Cameron mentioned, death is an important learning tool about where you’re at. In Diablo, it’s important to note exactly what is killing you. Being frequently killed by normal mobs is very different than sometimes being killed by “champion” mobs with a nasty combination of buffs. As long as you are able to survive against the majority of champions, you’re usually alright at that difficulty. However, Diablo also offers Hardcore mode, which makes death a permanent feature. As I’m not a glutton for this kind of punishment, I can’t speak too much towards how this changes the experience, but I’d expect that a lot of their fun comes from narrowly avoiding death in a manner very similar to that of games like Dark Souls.

However, Diablo 3 didn’t start this way. Most of what made Diablo 3 such a tragedy at launch was the auction house. Instead of hunting feverishly for items, anything could be bought for a large handful of gold. There weren’t that many items in the game, so everyone was fighting for the same items, and inflation happened quickly. Woven into this was the inclusion of real currency, which complicated matters even further and allowed players to pay their way to the best items. All of these things robbed players of being able to enjoy the game themselves and instead they had to worry about keeping up. All I remember from the early days is the auction board, because I spent more time hunting for bargains on the auction than actually playing Diablo.

Luckily, Blizzard was able to majorly overhaul the game by adding in a huge number of legendary items and removing the auction house in favor of a smart loot system that frequently rewarded the player (it’s reportedly impossible to go more than two hours without a legendary drop). In this way, Blizzard was able to salvage Diablo 3 and make it fun for the players in the same way that Diablo 2 had been in years previous. Players can set their own challenges and goals, and this time around the game is balanced a lot better, so there’s not as much cookie cutter characters like the “hammerdins” of years past.

The game allows for a lot more experimentation and creativity in how you set up your character and deck it out with items. One of the best parts of the game is finding a new item and identifying it to discover something with a great new effect. These can range from cute effects, like a ring that summons a goblin follower, to powerful effects, like a belt that shoots out the ability “Haunt” which sends contagious ghost spirts to suck out the life of everything nearby. Many of the newer items significantly alter the way that certain skills are used, like summoning a hammer every time you hit an enemy or causing an Earthquake by using Leap. This adds a sense of wonder to what you’re going to find next, especially when you aren’t quite sure what you’re aiming for in the early stages of building a character.

That sense of wonder is probably the closest thing to pure fun in a game like Diablo. Nick Hanford’s excellent understanding of fun as a tool tries to tackle the idea of pure fun, and instead offers up a place where something shiny is all a game like Diablo needs to create a pleasant and fun experience for the players.

But there is definitely still room for games to be pure fun. Whether it’s an experience of pure flow, or needing to be immersed in the narrative like Taylor Hidago in Mass Effect, that magic circle of play that Huizinga mentioned is usually a place where pure fun can be achieved. Maybe it’s in the design of the game like Diablo, or maybe it’s what we bring to the table.

I’ll leave you with this story from one of my favorite games, by Redditor TheScarletCravat: https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/36oqsm/my_experience_with_gta_online/crfz083


Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table for July 2015’s “Pure Fun” theme.

3 thoughts on “Do We Need Flow to Have Fun?

  1. Dana says:

    Cool post! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  2. dancloud724@gmail.com says:

    Anyone who wants to dive deeper into whether we need flow should check out Cameron Kunzelman & Heather Alexandra‘s great posts on the topic.

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