I was stumped. The educators in the room were all staring up at me, waiting for me to finish my sentence. Unfortunately, my mind had blanked. I could not recall the ingredients of Flow. In that moment, itÂ didn’t matter that I had taught game designÂ dozens of times, to hundreds of learners all across the country. All that mattered was that flow was just a list of four ingredients – raw text. With neither an acronym, nor a visual aidÂ to guide me, I could not bring them to mind.
That moment began my quest. I needed a better way to think about Flow. So, I spent more than two years researching, tinkering, and getting feedback on some new ideas. And finally, today, IÂ am ready. I’m presenting the answer to my questÂ in a new paper for Modsim WorldÂ Conference 2016.
The full paper is here: Flow Space – A Visual Guide for Flow and Simplicity in Games.
It’s not a particularly long paper, coming in underÂ 9 pages. And even so, if you’re like me, you’d still prefer to see a cliff-notes version. So, here’s the basics.
FlowÂ is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). It isÂ often described as the optimal human experience of engagement. And, what’s really coolÂ about Flow is that there’s a recipe for it. The recipe has four ingredients:
- Clear Tasks
- Immediate Feedback
- Balanced Difficulty
- Minimal Distractions
What’s less cool is that this recipe is not very easy to remember. Even after a decade of using the recipe, I still got to a point in a conversation where I couldn’t pull up the four ingredients. And maybe, it wasn’tÂ my fault.
Ever heard of working memory? That’s the idea that we can typically only remember 4-7 things. It’s part of cognitive load theory and it explains what happened to me in the presentation. I was fully engaged in what I was doing, listening to each of the attendees, trying to get them all to participate. So that when the conversation swung back to flow, all of a sudden, I couldn’t remember the four ingredients.Â The ingredientsÂ had been swapped out to make room for other cool stuff! And, this is what often happens when we’re designing games – there are schedules, trade offs, and all the stuff that goes into the product! That’s why we need a picture, maybe somethingÂ like this:
That’s what I came up with. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t the first idea I came up with. Though I’m happy with, it now. Especially consideringÂ the great feedback I’ve gotten fromÂ game development students, educators, and fellow designers. I love how this simple picture helps people focusÂ on justÂ one thing -Â they recall the image with the three circlesÂ and theÂ triangle, and then, they can generally fill in the rest.
I foundÂ the answer to my quest!
And even so, IÂ was already in this crazy frame of mind where I was thinking about diagrams,Â recipes, and tenets of game design. So, I turned my attention to one of myÂ favorite topics – Simplicity.
Now simplicity is a funny word. It’s kind of vague, and also, kind of powerful. Which is probably why Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Which is pretty heavy stuff.
And what kind of stinks about simplicity is thatÂ there really isn’t aÂ practical definition for what simplicity means in games. I mean, sure, “I know it when I see it”, except that’s not very useful. Fortunately, as I said, simplicity is one of my favorite topics. It’s something I’ve been researching forÂ almost 5 years. And, after failing to find a recipe that already existed, I decided to create my own. So, here’s my recipe.
- Limited Choice
- Player’s Perspective
Even if it’s not a perfect recipe, at least it’s a place to start the conversation. And, in the spirit of simplicity, the ingredients spell anÂ acronym, CLIP. Which helps remind me to clip things that don’t fit. Cute – right?
Now CLIPÂ only takes a single slot, so I rarely have trouble rememberingÂ the ingredients, no matter how involved I am in what I’m doing. Even so, IÂ wanted to put simplicity in a diagram too. And even more important, I wanted the pictures of simplicity and flow to be asÂ relatedÂ as the concepts themselves are.Â And then, finally, on a long-drive back from Pennsylvania, I came up with this.
Sure, it’s not quite as cool as the Flow picture, and even so, there’s something about it that kind of works. I particularly like how similar it is to the Flow diagram – the shapes, style, and colors.Â And, because they are so similar, I could now combine the two diagrams into one picture, like this.
Tada!Â I call it Flow Space – a Visual Guide for Flow and Simplicity in Games. And, that’s the cliff notes. If you want the details, or just have 20 minutes to kill, then you might enjoy the full paper too.