Friday, April 24, 2009

'Flow Engineering' using computer games

This is the first of a series of posts that sketch some ways in which computer game frameworks can be used to promote the positive development of humanity, both as individuals and collectively. The posts are intended to stimulate discussion and sharing about some of the key themes that will be explored in depth at the Meaningful Media Workshop.

This first post examines how computer games can be designed and structured to overcome a major impediment to the positive development of humanity.

Part of being human is having long term goals that we are unable to achieve easily (or sometimes at all). Often our difficulty is that we are not motivated to do all the things that are necessary to reach the goal.

For example, we don’t necessarily find satisfaction in the actions needed to lose weight, to get fit, to learn a musical instrument, to get a better career, or to develop our emotional, social, cognitive or spiritual intelligence. The fact that we find a long term goal extremely alluring does not automatically provide us with the motivation to take all the steps to achieve the goal. Unfortunately, human psychology is not organized that way (yet).

Computer games and related technologies can help overcome this significant impediment to human achievement. To see how, we will begin by looking at what we can learn from cases in which motivation is not a significant problem.

In some circumstances we sail effortlessly towards our goals. For example, we appear to be able to sustain motivation over a long period when there is a sequence of steps that will take us to our goal, and each step happens to be intrinsically rewarding and satisfying.

On some occasions, we find ourselves moving effortlessly along such a ‘motivational path’ in a state know as Flow. In a Flow state we are strongly focused on a sequence of challenges and are fully immersed in responding to them. We move through the challenges enjoyably and without effort, often losing track of time.

A key condition for maintaining a Flow experience is a balance between the level of ability of the participant and the degree of difficulty of the challenges. Each step must not be so easy as to produce boredom, nor so difficult as to evoke anxiety. Some features that appear to be common to most Flow paths are:

· A clear sequence of challenges that require the exercise of skill;

· Direct positive feedback when a challenge is responded to successfully;

· The challenges are reasonably matched to the participant’s (developing) skills, giving the participant a sense of control; and

· Negative thinking is suppressed through the merging of action and awareness, and by a requirement for concentration (more on Flow can be found here).

But there are no Flow paths or other strong motivational paths to many of our important longer term goals. To what extent can this be overcome by intentional ‘Flow engineering’? Can we embed ourselves in circumstances that provide motivational paths to our goals? If there is no ‘naturally occurring’ Flow path to an important goal, can we build one?

A comprehensive capacity to engineer strong motivational paths to our longer-term goals would fundamentally change human potential.

Computer games and related technologies have an enormous potential to engineer motivational paths, including Flow paths. It is this capacity of computer games to provide flow paths that makes them absorbing and addictive. In large part, the success of a video game is proportional to its ability to evoke a Flow experience.

It is easy to see how computer game can be structured to provide motivational paths that meet all the criteria for producing Flow. Sequences of challenges, direct feedback, a requirement for concentration and merging of action and awareness are all easily incorporated into a game framework. And most importantly, the interactivity of computer games enables dynamic matching of the degree of difficulty to the level of the player. Matching can take advantage of interactivity by monitoring and assessing player performance and by allowing player-choice (either explicit or implicit). [More on tuning games to provide Flow (including ‘Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment’) can be found here].

The potential of computer games and related technologies to provide motivational paths is almost unlimited. In principle, they can provide a path to almost any goal. This is because any achievement that moves a player towards a goal can be a challenge that is rewarded within the game. An achievement can be the acquisition of a skill (whether physical, cognitive or spiritual), the development of particular knowledge or insight, a behavioral outcome, or the accomplishment of some specific task or state of affairs. It also can be something that the player achieves in ‘real life’, provided there is a process that translates the achievement into a game input. This input could, for example, be collected by automatic monitoring or sensing processes (including biofeedback), or could be produced by the player (e.g. by inputting reports through an interface).

In this way, a virtual gaming framework can be applied as an overlay to activities in real life. The overlay would treat achievement of particular outcomes as progress within the game. The outcomes that are rewarded would be chosen so that they provide a new motivational path to longer-term, ‘real life’ goals. For a simple example, the real life goal might be the loss of a particular amount of weight, and actions that are rewarded within the game may include activities that reduce food intake and burn calories. Rewards may include the satisfaction of doing better than others in a multi-player framework.

The best way to get a feel for the extraordinary potential of games to provide Flow paths to meaningful goals is to look at some existing games that do this. It is also useful to consider how new games could be designed and tuned to provide motivational paths to other meaningful, ‘real life’ goals. This will be the subject of my next post to this blog.


  1. great i never read this type article thanks for share keep rocking me awesome with me :)Thanks for post. It’s really imformative stuff.
    I really like to read.Hope to learn a lot and have a nice experience here! my best regards guys!
    Yes that is a nice idea but have you ever thought of going up to the biggest guy on the subway and telling him your thoughts on this. I wonder what he might do, or would you even do it.
    wow gold--wow gold

  2. hello this articls is very useful for everyone. i like to read. thanks for best regards with you............

  3. You have the skills in writing. Really. Thanks for sharing this kind of information. Role Playing games are kind of games that in a way give the user the chance to perform what he really wanted to portrait, and these kind of games develop the sense of responsibility of such gamer. Well aside from these games, there are games that are educational, most of the Download Games vary effects on gamers, though.

  4. Thanks John. Great approach. This takes the notion of Flow and provides it with a rare contextual element. To me, it opens up some genuine opportunities, through computer games, to demonstrate to individuals, what it really means to become absorbed in the flow of an activity or event. Keen to learn more. Thanks again. Peter S

  5. Thanks for sharing it here. I like to play games to relax myself. I use to play world of warcraft game often. When i was new to the game I use to review the Wow leveling guides to improve my levels.