A framework for flow

February 8, 2009


A few years ago I read a massively important book called “A Theory of Fun” by Raph Koster, master designer of massively multiplayer online worlds and responsible for Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies.

Buy the book. Seriously. But before you go any further spend five minutes reading the presentation that inspired it, which you can get here on his blog.

Its main thesis still blows my mind with its simplicity:

“Games are puzzles – they are about cognition and learning to analyze patterns. When you’re playing a game, you’ll only play it until you master the pattern. Once you’ve mastered it the game becomes boring

To keep the game fun the game designer has to delay this point for as long as possible, but if the game is too hard nobody will play it. A perfect balance between the ability of the player and the game’s difficulty must be reached.

Get that balance absolutely right and you get flow, possibly the most important feeling designers should try to induce in their users.

Not just for games!

From Raph again:

“Flow doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it feels pretty darn wonderful. The problem is that precisely matching challenges to capability is incredibly hard. For one thing, the brain is churning away and might make a cognitive leap at any moment, rendering the rest of the challenge trivial. For another, whatever is presenting the challenges doesn’t necessarily have any sense of the level of understanding posessed by the player.”

“As we succeed in mastering new patterns thrown at us, the brain gives us little jolts of pleasure. But if the flow of new patterns slows, then we won’t get the jolts and we’ll start to feel boredom. If the flow of new patterns increases beyond our ability to resolve them, we won’t get the jolts either because we’re not making progress.”

Flow is so important that designers should consider it in everything they work on, whether it is as simple as a folding chair or as complex as an operating system. But it’s hard, very hard to implement, particularly as you move away from games towards less intrinsically entertaining tasks.

Why is it so hard?

There’s plenty of factors. Here are two.


  • The designer’s control over the system. In a closed system where the designer has full control over the rules, he can tune the level of challenge to better match the skills of the user.
  • Users. Even the most cleverly designed closed system will find it harder to match challenge to skill when more than one person is involved. The obvious reason is that the two players will have different levels of skill. More subtly, when you inject more people into even the simplest system you also inject their foibles and psychology, drastically increasing the complexity and making it harder to reliably create flow.

This should give a clue to what a designer needs to be aware of when designing for flow.

If the world is yours.

Gaming (1 user). “On the rails” games such as the astonishingly successful Guitar Hero, House of the Dead and to a lesser extent Mirror’s Edge are perfect examples of designed flow.

The gameworld and challenge is completely under the control of the designer, and the player can generally adapt the difficulty to better match their skills, with progressively harder content unlocked as they improve.

Dancing (2 users). A perfect example of this from outside gaming is dancing, particularly ballroom dancing. In this case the “design” is the type of music, which usually fits within a set rythm and tempo, and the dance, which consists of a set of rules and moves.

The additional complexity someone designing a dance would have to take into account is the interaction between the two dancers; flow is achieved by creating a common language through the music and the rules of the dance.

Driving (Many users). The driving environment may seem complex but its elements are relatively fixed: the road, the traffic signals, the highway code.

Within these constraints, billions of people with different destinations, priorities and frames of mind drive safely every day.

What if you can’t control the challenges?

This is where the most difficult problems still lie. In all these cases, the designers have only control over a limited part of the environment and must hope that they can exert enough influence to improve the whole.

Productivity software (1 user). Operating systems and productivity software are both tools which help their users achieve some end, whether writing a paper, analysing financial performance or… designing something. The problem is, Microsoft can perfect Word, for example, until it is a masterpiece of writing and page layout, but if the writer is uninspired they will still be blocked.

What can it do to help (Clippy, go away!)? Once it has the basic usability and is out of your way, what patterns can the software introduce to kickstart the user’s thought process and get them back into flow?

Dating (2 users). Stepping away from software for a second. Imagine you are designing a restaurant which in which two people will have the perfect date.

Obviously you cannot control the biggest element of all: the chemistry between them, but you can control enough elements of the environment to smooth things along. What food to serve? What lighting? What cutlery? What furniture? What music?

Civilisation (Many users). Here the problems for designers become monumental. How do you design tools which can help teams of tens, hundreds, thousands of people to effortlessly work and build something together.

How do you design a city so that it’s inhabitants experience flow?

And most colossaly of all: how do you design a society so that its members can experience flow? How do you direct them to flow in tasks which built the next layer of civilisation?

Apart from being associated with fun and satisfaction, if flow is the perfect match between challenge and abillity it is the quickest way to achievement.

How can we flow more?

PS: Never thought i’d write the sentence: “Civilisation (Many users)”


One Response to “A framework for flow”

  1. […] can do a lot more than just entertain. They can can make accounting fun, help kids learn, teach valuable lessons in design and suggest new interactions with the world around […]

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