My particular area of interest was in the occurrence of flow while experiencing video games.

Flow is a state in which an individual experiences intense focus, a loss of self-consciousness, sense of control, an emerging of action and awareness, and a feeling of intrinsic reward for their actions (Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2002). People experience such a state quite often, and it is often accompanied by statements such as “Time flies when you’re having fun”. Flow is a very important concept for us to understand because it indicates a mental state in which a person becomes less conscious and deliberate, and instead responds to challenges with creative solutions (Sawyer, R. K. 2003). (Check out a game which is all about coming up with solutions no one has thought of:

Requisites for flow

Although fun can be a component of the intrinsic reward, it’s important to note that fun itself is not necessary to flow. Many activities such as working in an office or performing surgery can result in flow. (Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997). Flow is brought about by a number of things:

(1) activities that challenge an individual’s skills without over-burdening them,

(2) a clear understanding of present goals,

(3) feedback for the performance and progress on the activity,

(4) and a sense of control over a situation.

For example, one may experience a great deal of flow when washing dishes. They may not particularly enjoy washing them, but carefully manipulating slippery glassware and applying a soapy sponge in a methodical manner is challenging enough without becoming too difficult. The dish-washer also knows exactly what their objective is at any given point: to wash the next dish until they are all clean. Furthermore, I get immediate feedback regarding my success in whether or not a dish is dirty, likewise my mistakes, such as dropping a dish, will result in a loud noise. And finally, the dish-washer would feel in-charge of dishwashing. Thus they would find themselves highly focused, and complete the load efficiently.

Interaction of skill and challenge

One of the biggest factors in achieving flow, is the careful balance between an individual's skill and the difficulty of the task. If a task is too easy for an individual, they will not experience flow, and likewise if the task is too difficult. However, that balance changes in regards to the skill of the individual as well. Research by Seung-A Annie Jin explored the relationship between skill and challenge in participants by having them play a first-person shooter game. What she found was:

*Players with low skill experienced little flow, regardless of the level of perceived challenge (Jin, S. A. 2011).

*Players with medium skill experienced little flow when perceived challenge was high or low, but experienced moderate flow when perceived challenge was medium (Jin, S. A. 2011).

*Players with high skill experienced little flow when the perceived challenge was low, moderate flow when the perceived challenge was medium, and high flow when the perceived challenge was high (Jin, S. A. 2011).

This suggest that players with higher skill tend to experience greater and more frequent flow, while players with little skill receive very little, if at all. It seems that experience has a large effect on one's capacity to experience flow during a particular activity.

Video games and flow

Video games are great ways to research flow. This is because they share all of the requisites for flow. Video games present challenging activities that can be mechanically adjusted in difficulty to account for arousal preference, personal skill, and a desire for challenge. What’s more is that they frequently provide feedback about a player’s performance by presenting a score at the end of the activity. Likewise, video games provide a lot of immediate feedback in the form of audio cues such as impact noises, visual cues such as health bars, and even textual references to their performance such as scores. This shows gamers how they are progressing on any given task and whether or not their strategies are proving effective. Video games also make sure to provide clear objectives to the player, supplemented by visual aid, textual or vocal explanation, and prompts.

In fact, video games cause such intense focus, lack of self-awareness, lack of a sense of time, feeling of control over an experience, and an intrinsic reward for engaging in it, that it's hard to see how one might not experience flow when playing them.

Neural activity of Flow in video games

Research has been conducted to determine how flow occurs in the brain when playing video games. (Klasen, M., Weber, R., Kircher, T. T. J., Mathiak, K. A., & Mathiak, K. 2012). In this study, the researchers had participants play a first-person shooter game while scanned by an fMRI machine. The video game operationalized flow properties of: ability vs. challenge (kill-to-death ration), concentration and focus (level of active fighting), direct feedback of action results (observation of virtual body), clear goals (time spent in exploration), and control over activity (familiarity with game mechanics). They found conjunctive activation of areas of the brain.

1. Ability/challenge

Successful kills caused activation of midbrain structures, cerebellum, thalamus, parietal and occipital areas, and premotor cortex whereas failure was characterized by increased cuneus activity. (Klasen, M. et al 2012).

2. Concentration and focus

Activations and deactivations to increasing focus level of the player. Higher focus led to cerebellar activation and activity increase in higher visual, parietal and premotor areas. Increasing focus was characterized by a deactivation of bilateral intraparietal sulcus, orbitofrontal cortex and rostral ACC. (Klasen, M. et al 2012).

3. Direct feedback

No significant activation were found (Klasen, M. et al 2012).

4. Clear goals

Activations and deactivations during phases with goal-directed behavior. Bilateral IPS and fusiform face area are activated during phases with a clear goal. Precuneus and dorsal ACC and thalamus are deactivated (Klasen, M. et al 2012).

5. Control over activity

Activations and deactivations during active transitions. A corticothalamo-cerebellar network was activated during active transitions. Temporo-polar structures were inhibited together with bilateral angular gyrus. (Klasen, M. et al 2012).

Because “direct feedback” did not make any significant activations, it was excluded from the final model. Researchers also concluded that operationalizing “clear goals” as phases rather than events, as the rest of the measures were structured, meant that those activations may not have been related to flow, and thus was excluded from the final model as well.

Ultimately, the conjunctive flow activations brought about by instances of ability vs challenge, concentration and focus, and control over activity, primarily activated motor areas, cerebellum, and the thalamus. Meaning that not only does video game flow contribute to reward-processing, but it also activates “simulation networks” that suggest that video games can stimulate areas that are used for physical activity (Klasen, M. et al 2012). Thus, in many of the same ways physical activities such as talking, dancing, playing sports, and so on, can put our minds into a state of flow, so too can video games by utilizing areas of the brain that seem not to care about the difference. While this in no ways suggests that video games are a substitute for physical activity, it can explain why they can be so often considered preferable for people looking to experience the state of flow.

Mediating role of presence

The fact that video games can so directly utilize motor and sensory areas of our brain suggests that somewhere through the process, a video game convinces our minds that it is real, or at least real enough to be processed in a similar way to physical activity. Much in the same way that audiences begin to buy into the perceived reality of an improvised play or other performance, or to the deliberate and intentional talent of a musical improvisor, a gamer's brain must accept the reality of a video game.

Researchers have discovered a potential variable that could serve as the mediator variable to the experience of flow which is referred to as “presence”. Tam-borini & Bowman define presence as “a psychological state in which users’ subjective experience in mediated environments is shaped by technological features of the environment in ways that are not readily apparent to the user” (as cited in Jin, S. A. 2011). Essentially, this means that video games use technological designs such as graphics, physics, sounds, feedback, or other features to influence a player's acceptance of the game's reality.

Seung-A Annie Jin studied three different types of presence in three different genres of video games to determine how they contributed to flow.

1. Physical presence

Physical presence is the sense of physical potency in a game. Examples of this may be your ability to destroy terrain, being able to throw or manipulate game objects, game characters reacting to your movements, etc.

2. Spacial presence

Spacial presence is the sense that a video game world exists in a three-dimensional space and understanding your avatar's positional relationship within that environment. Open games with landmarks, for example, give the player a sense of movement through the world, and they can orient themselves using features and landmarks, and thus establish relative distance, location, and so on.

3. Self-presence

Self-presence is a sense of emotional investment in the success and well-being of one's video game character. Features such as the ability to customize physical appearance, and freedom to make choices that impact your character can increase such a sense of self-presence.

Jin also discussed another potential type of presence in the form of “social presence”, which would be the sense of social impact between them and other players. However, this was not included in her study, as it would require multiplayer games unlike the rest of her study.

Jin found that physical presence, spacial presence, and self-presence, were all mediators of flow such that the flow would increase with greater presence.

(Check out a cool new development in virtual reality!

Video Games and Improvisation

But are video games good examples of fields in which improvisation commonly occurs? It can be argued that video games, since they are computer programs, have no emergent properties. People can not perform actions that are not already written into the code. Thus there are no truly novel behaviors. But while it is true that video game code offers a strong restriction on what exactly is possible in a video game, it does not preclude players from coming up with creative behaviors that were not intended by the developers. This is known as emergent gameplay.

Emergent gameplay

Examples of emergent gameplay include the infamous rocket jump, invented when a creative Quake player discovered that the explosive properties of rockets could be used to intentionally propel oneself across the game environment at the expense of health (See for a live-action interpretation). But while novel tactics are part of the picture, emergent gameplay is also exemplified by unique behavior resulting from social interaction in video games. Any game where players can interact in any way with each other has examples of behavior that uses game mechanics to create new cultural meanings.

For example,

Minecraft players know that when a player uses the “sneak” action, it represents sitting or bowing, because of the way the animation appears.

First-person shooter players know that when an enemy crouches over their dead character, it is a taunt and gesture of disrespect.

Team Fortess 2 players know that when a spy crouches while holding his disguise kit, he is known as a “spycrab”, and that enemy players are not to attack him because he is now neutral.

These behaviors did not arise out of any developer's intent, but emerged as the result of novel interpretations that achieved a cultural significance.

It is important to note that unlike musical improvisation or theatrical improvisation, video games do have limits to what a player can or can't do. However, musical and theatrical improvisation also have limits, not just subjective limits determined by an improvisation's appropriateness and contribution to the performance, but also to hard limits such as the laws of nature. Thus no improvisation is truly “unlimited”. For this reason, video games, particularly with the exponential growth of the sophistication of computer programming, remain excellent examples of how and when improvisation occurs.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.

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, 114–136.

Klasen, M., Weber, R., Kircher, T. T. J., Mathiak, K. A., & Mathiak, K. (2012). Neural contributions to flow experience during video game playing. SCAN, 7, 485-495.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. Handbook of positive psychology, 89-105.

Sawyer, R. K.. (2003). Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.