Are skilled players more likely to experience flow?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What is the relationship between skill, challenge and flow?

One of the most attractive aspects of video games is the possibility to experience flow. This happens when a user engages in an activity that fits his set of skills while still maintaining a certain level of challenge. The individual then becomes so focused in the task that the outside world slowly starts to disappear. Flow can make people feel better about themselves, have fun and forget about their problems. This makes it one of the most desirable objectives for both gamers and developers. But what attributes are expected to produce flow?

Most experts think there is a strong relationship between how skilled a player is, the amount of challenge he or she faces and the experience of flow. But finding what levels of challenge and skill can produce flow has not been that easy. For example: Since flow is associated with reward, then higher levels of difficulty should have a positive effect on flow, right? Well, not exactly. A recent experiment found no significant effects of difficulty on flow in a Tower Defense game (Schmierbach, Chung, Wu & Kim, 2012). Additionally, two experiments involving Wii games showed that the level of perceived challenge didn’t affect flow on “Trauma Center: New Blood” (a surgical simulator that uses haptic feedback on hand-held controllers) or “Need for Speed” (a racing game played, in this experiment, with a steering wheel) (Jin, 2011). It did, however, made the surgical instruments feel more real (physical presence) and increased the sensation of being inside a race (spatial presence), which had a significant effect on flow (Jin, 2011). This seems to suggest that challenge can have an indirect effect on flow. The high number of threats a player has to face in Ninja Gaiden, for example, could increase the importance of in-game events, making everything feel more real. This would make victories more rewarding but could also increase engagement, making the players forget about their problems.

Ninja Gaiden’s difficulty could have increased both presence and flow.

Cognitive skills, on the other hand, seem to have a rather unstable relationship with flow. A study on first person shooters, for example, revealed that the ability to hit a static target improved flow for players using a gamepad, but not for those using a motion controller (Bowman & Boyan, 2008). This suggests that the capacity of a skill to promote flow can be affected by different aspects of gameplay, like the type of interface being used. One possible explanation could be that when the characteristics of a game change, different abilities are required. In other words, the right set of abilities is more important than having many skills. This would increase performance and, therefore, the feeling of competence; both variables that have been associated with higher levels of flow (Bowman & Boyan, 2008; and Jin, 2012, respectively). The idea is congruent with an experiment in which players who rated better their ability to play a racing game achieved higher levels of flow while playing it (Jin, 2011). So, an ability for planning and leading organized attacks might improve your chances of experiencing flow in “World of Warcraft” and “League of Legends”, but it might not be that useful in a more chaotic environment like an online “Call of Duty” match.

An ability that produces flow in a racing game could be useless in a surgical simulator.

How much challenge or skill is needed for flow to occur? A series of studies on Wii titles showed that, more or less, low levels of challenge or skill tend to produce low levels of flow (Jin, 2011; 2012). This is especially clear in the case of “Need for Speed” (Jin, 2011) and “Need for Speed: Nitro” (Jin, 2012). This suggests that, at least in the case of racing games, a minimum level of demand or ability is required to experience flow. However, an experiment that measured the playfulness trait on people playing “Wii Fit” showed an interesting result. When playfulness was low, the effect of low challenge and skill on flow was, as expected, usually low (Jin, 2012). But when participants were highly playful, low levels of challenge and skill produced the highest levels of flow (Jin, 2012). This probably happens because the absence of challenge or skill means there will be little punishment for errors or reward for victories. This means that there will be less negative consequences if the player engages in free exploration, something that tends to attract highly playful people. So, if you start playing a Real Time Strategy games like Red Alert or StarCraft for the first time, try going through the tutorial campaign first. This will help you improve your skill, increasing your chances of experiencing flow later on. Unless you are the type of person that enjoys finding out the different features of a new game first; like listening the character’s voices or watching the different types of deaths.

Forgetting the mission and exploring the surroundings can be fun too.

Researchers believe that balance between challenge and skill should produce the highest levels of flow. This makes sense as a challenge superior to the player’s abilities would end up promoting frustration, and a level of difficulty inferior to the user’s skills would make the task boring. The hypothesis is supported by part of the evidence: Balance between skill and challenge has been associated with flow for computer games like “Pac-Man” (Engeser & Rheinberg, 2008) and “Bloons Tower Defense 4” (Schmierbach, Chung, Wu, & Kim, 2012), as well as for Wii titles like “Need for Speed” (Jin, 2011), “Need for Speed: Nitro” and “Mad World (a gory beat-em-up) (Jin, 2012). This didn’t happen, however, in the case of “Trauma Center: Second Opinion” and “Wii Fit” (Jin, 2012). One way to explain this is that specific game attributes made the experience of failure less negative or the positive feedback obtained from victories more rewarding, preventing a game that is too difficult or too easy to become less enjoyable. Maybe the absence of virtual enemies in “Trauma Center” made the player care less about losing and “Wii Fit” users were more interested in exploring the capabilities of the Kinect than scoring the highest score. In any case, evidence suggest that there is no sure way to provoke flow, but balance between challenge and skill is definitely a good start.

Balance between challenge and skill seems to be less important in games like “Wii Fit”.

It’s seems difficult to predict when or even if flow will happen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something we can do to increase our chances of either enter the state or provoke it. The first lesson we can obtain from the reviewed studies is that some skill is better than no skill. And while no player starts a game with a complete understanding of the mechanics, going through a tutorial or keeping the “hints” option activated could help users make a faster transition from “Wow, easy there!” to “Ok, let’s do this!”. The second lesson is that the relationship between challenge and skill seems to play an important role in the occurrence of flow. This means that it’s particularly important for developers to provide different difficulty levels the user can choose from, as well as carefully verify if the challenge increases with each stage just enough to match the player’s newly acquired skills. The final lesson we must remember is this: The circumstances of play can change what does and what doesn’t promote flow. Different game types and user preferences can, as we have seen, prompt unexpected situations, like a highly playful individual entering a deep state of flow just by ignoring all the objectives and do what he or she wants.

Flow is a complex phenomenon. Probably as complex as different types of games and players are out there. Finding a formula that consistently triggers intense and prolonged flow states in every single player might be impossible. But thanks to the work of both researchers and developers, we can expect flow to become a more accessible type of experience with every new generation of games.


Bowman, N. D., & Boyan, A. C. (2008, May). Cognitive skill as a predictor of flow and presence in naturally mapped video games. Paper presented at the 58th annual convention of the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada.

Engeser, S., & Rheinberg, F. (2008). Flow, performance and moderators of challenge-skill balance. Motivation and Emotion, 32(3), 158-172. doi:10.1007/s11031-008-9102-4

Jin, S. A. (2011). I feel present. Therefore, I experience flow: A structural equation modeling approach to flow and presence in video games. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 55(1), 114-136. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2011.546248

Jin, S. A. (2012). Toward integrative models of flow: Effects of performance, skill, challenge, playfulness, and presence on flow in video games. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(2), 169-186. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2012.678516

Schmierbach, M., Chung, M., Wu, M. & Kim, K., (2012, May). No one likes to lose: Game difficulty, motivation, immersion and enjoyment. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Phoenix, AZ.

The Power of Video Game Music

Monday, May 5, 2014

Music has become an essential part of the video game experience. Developers and composers have managed to make stories more compelling and challenges more attractive with the help of carefully designed soundtracks. Games like Ninja Gaiden for the NES or successful series like Metal Gear or Bioshock probably wouldn´t be the same without the beautiful music especially prepared for them. However, we still know very little about the how and why music affect us the way it does. Why does some songs seem playful and other serious? Why some music make us hurry while other tends to relax us? And if music is capable of affecting how we feel, could it also makes us better players?

Let’s start by talking about the relationship between music and emotions. Video game music is frequently associated with positive affect. The highly motivational theme we hear while waiting for a Battlefield map to load or the playful tune we listen to in the wizard town of Mysidia in Final Fantasy IV are good examples. But music can also be used to provoke negative feelings. The presence of music, for example, was shown to increase stress levels in a group of people playing Quake III (Hébert, Renée, Dionne-Fournelle, Crete & Lupien, 2005). It was also found to make players less relaxed and increase how dangerous everything felt in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers game (Lipscomb & Zehnder, 2004). This suggest that listening to certain types of music can make players feel more afraid of negative in-game events, like being shot by the enemy or falling off a cliff. This capacity to elicit negative affect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Resident Evil 2, for example, the fear of a surprise encounter with an enemy forces players to pay close attention to any suspicious movement or sound, increasing both engagement and emotional involvement. Also, the constant threat of dying and losing all the unsaved progress turns into a profound feeling of relief when a typewriter (a tool used to save the player’s game) is eventually found. So, even when music promotes negative affect, this could indirectly lead to more immersive and rewarding experiences.

Skyrim’s outdoor theme switches to a more action oriented tune in the presence of an enemy.

Developers seem to believe that fast paced music can increase the fear and anxiety provoked by an approaching threat. Super Mario Bros. titles, for example, tend to accelerate the speed of music when time is running out. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, on the other hand, uses a high tempo song (appropriately named “Pressure”) in a level where the player must hurry to escape constantly rising water levels. But how does this work? One possibility is that people use the speed of music as a way to measure time. The faster it goes, the more it feels like additional time has passed. This could also make us feel like we are moving slowly. The idea seems to be congruent with an experiment in which fast paced music made players drive faster in a racing game (Cassidy & MacDonald, 2010). So, if you are running away from an enemy, then chances are a fast song will make you feel like you are about to lose your life.

Castlevania III added a high-tempo song to a flooding level to increase the feeling of an approaching threat.

While altering tempo seems to be a very reliable way to affect gameplay, media producers also depend heavily on the use of highly arousing music. This is especially obvious in the trailers for summer blockbusters, were intense compositions are used to transmit a feeling that something great and important is happening (just watch the theatrical trailer for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2). Video games are no exception. Arousing music tends to accompany the most important events in a level or game. Scenes like the Battle of Stalingrad in the original Call of Duty wouldn’t have transmitted such strong emotions if it wasn’t for the epic but sad theme that played in the background. However, this type of songs might not go with every type of game. People playing Project Gotham Racing 3, for example, found high arousal music less appropriate and enjoyable as well as more distracting than low arousal songs (Cassidy & MacDonald, 2010). It also made them reach higher speeds and achieve shorter lap times, as well as hit more obstacles (Cassidy & MacDonald, 2010). This is congruent with the idea that highly arousing music motivates individuals to act with more energy and speed, but also more recklessly. So if you want start a carefully planned campaign in a Real Time Strategy game, we don’t recommend listening to John Williams´ “Duel of Fates”.

Highly arousing music made players go faster but also more reckless in Project Gotham Racing 3.

As we have seen there are different ways to influence the player’s emotions and behavior through music. Video game companies know this and invest a considerable amount of resources in designing the best possible soundtrack. This involves carefully matching different styles of songs to specific types of games or scenes: A heavy metal song may go well with violent action scenes as well as a theme of revenge, but it may feel out of place in a stealth mission or a scene depicting the dead of a beloved character. Still, some players think games should give users the option to listen to their own music. This would allow them to build a more personalized experience, choosing less distracting and more arousing songs, eventually increasing both engagement and emotional involvement. In the previous experiment, for example, listening to self-selected music was not only preferred but also improved the participants ability to avoid obstacles randomly placed in the racing track (Cassidy and MacDonald, 2010). Also, incongruence between soundtrack and audiovisual content seems to have a very limited effect in immersion, the feeling of being inside the content and how realistic the events depicted seem; at least in the case of movies (Petey, Campanella, Rubenking, Buncher & Gress, 2010). Still, developers won’t necessarily appreciate the idea of having less control over the final feel of their product and additional evidence would be required before most of them adopt this approach.

GTA: San Andreas and WWE 13 allow the the user to add their own music, increasing replay value.

Research on the relationship between music and the user experience could have an important effect in the future of video games. Especially considering the current interest in the development of soundtracks that adapt to the user’s feelings and behavior. But instead of using this newly acquired knowledge to provoke a more intense experience, developers could just employ it to obtain more precise effects. After all, triggering a very specific sets of emotions or reduce the levels of distraction to improve performance could be enough to make players perceive a significant improvement in video game quality. Findings could also be applied to different fields like the use of music in work-place to reduce stress without affecting performance. In the end research about video game soundtracks could end up affecting not only how we play at home, but also how we spend our time in the office.


Cassidy, G. G. & MacDonald, R. A. R. (2010). The effects of music on time perception and performance of a driving game. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51(6), 255-464. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2010.00830.x.

Hébert, S., Renée, B., Dionne-Fournelle, O., Crete, M., & Lupien, J. (2005). Physiological stress response to video-game playing: The contribution of built-in music. Life Sciences, 76(20), 2371-2380

Lipscomb S. D. & Zehnder, S. M. (2004). Immersion in the virtual environment: The effect of a musical score on the video gaming experience. Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science, 23(6), 337-343.

Petey, G., Campanella, C., Rubenking, B., Buncher, M., & Gress, E. (2010). Telepresence, soundscapes and technological expectation: Putting the observer into the equation. Virtual Reality, 14(1), 15-24. doi: 10.1007/s10055-009-0148-8