Have you ever sat down to casually get a few minutes of gaming in only to find yourself a couple of hours later realizing you are standing up, sweating and intensely staring at the screen in front of you asking yourself “Wait a minute, what time is it? Why do I have blisters on my thumbs? What the heck am I doing!?

Most of the time, this situation comes up when you are playing a great game, but the real question is why does this happen? What is our brain doing in these moments where we ‘lose ourselves’ in a gaming session?

Many psychologists have conducted studies on these high level engagements in what they call ‘Cognitive Flow’. So let’s take a bit of time and go through the Flow to see how it effects our brain and even how you can use it in your own design process to create an engaging and amazing game.



Before we dive into the characteristics of Cognitive Flow, we should explore the history of the study. Back in the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, evaluated and outlined the theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of Flow. He documented that a person’s skill and the difficulty of a task interact with each other which results in different emotional and cognitive states of mind. When skill is too low and the task too hard, people become anxious. Alternatively, if the task is too easy and skill too high, people become bored. However, when skill and difficulty are roughly proportional, people enter the flow state, which is exactly what a game design must seek to do.



1. Extreme focus on a task.

2. A sense of active control.

3. Merging of action and awareness.

4. Loss of self-awareness.

5. Distortion of the experience of time.





Now, onto the juicy stuff. Let’s go ahead and find out how to get players into that desired flow state.




Make sure your players always have some kind of goal to accomplish and that they can always reference back to something if they lose focus on the task. Nothing is worse that when you get a task from an NPC but do not pay attention because there are other things going on around you and then once you can gain focus again, the NPC is in a place that is inaccessible and you are left to wander for 20+ minutes to accomplish something you have no clue how.

Flow will break down when a player does not know their goals are. When this happens, your game will lose the engagement of your player and they will be ever more likely to walk away from the game. Humans do not process all of the information coming from a screen or out of speakers and because of this, the design has to be done in a way where the important information reaches the player perhaps multiple times so that they can retain it easier to move through your game.

When information is presented too quickly or when there are multiple sources of information that compete for our attention, task performance can drop dramatically which in turn, causes people to become anxious and inhibit Flow.

Concrete goals and manageable rules are what you should strive to achieve in your game design. The act of a player achieving a goal is rewarding to them and it reinforces actions that will promote the individual to continue to complete more goals. Accomplishing something, whatever it may be, keeps up the desire to keep accomplishing goals. This cycle of goal -> achievement -> reward can keep your players interested and helps with the achievement of Flow states.

If players are easily able to accomplish goals, they are much more likely to continue playing. You must also keep in mind that there must be a balance between the player’s skill and the difficulty of task. That is where the deeper design comes in. You want your tasks to be hard but not impossible. The harder your tasks become, the bigger the reward you should give.



Understanding the skill limits of your player base and teaching player skill is extremely important. If your goals are too hard to accomplish, even if they are clear to the player, then the player will find the experience frustrating and they will probably give up.

Certain game mechanics must be slowly introduced to player so they can learn and adjust accordingly. Have ‘training’ areas in your design where you introduce a concept in a controlled environment instead of on the fly in a high stress environment. You want your players to be used to your controls so that they can increase their skill level over time to accomplish harder and harder tasks.

Have your tasks increase in difficulty on a curve, not a vertical. What is meant by this is by ramping up the difficulty gradually instead of instantly. You don’t want your players to get angry at your game because you have thrown them into a situation they were not prepared for. You want them to be comfortable enough to meet a new challenge with the learned skills they should already have.







Your player needs to know what they are doing. Whether it’s a sound queue of the strike of a sword or a visual representation of blood on your screen when you are hit, the feedback a player gets is crucial to immerse them in your game and keep them engaged.

If you establish displays and sound queues early on, you will maintain the attention of your players throughout. You want the feedback your provide them to mean something to them. You want your NPCs to comment on the players accomplishments and to change their actions based on the players interactions with them.



Keep the information displayed down so that the most important actions hold the attention of the player. The more sensory and information clutter there is, the harder it is for the player to find and evaluate the situation at hand. Designers should keep a simplicity level across all aspects of the game. Your HUDs or UIs should be simple and intuitive. If you have a complicated display, you confuse the player and cause them to get lost in the interface.

As stated above, there is limit on the human mind as to what it can take in and retain. The less information you throw around on a screen means that the more important information sticks with the player.

Your HUDs and UIs should be as simple as possible. The famous saying Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S.) is perfect here. You want to keep the intricacies of your design and your more complex art to be seen within the story of the game, not the static interface the player sees because then, not only will they be distracted by the complex but they will be underwhelmed when they expect more out of the art style when you are showing your max capabilities right off the bat.



Concrete goals with manageable rules tend to induce the Flow states. By keeping the important information focused on the player and keeping your interfaces simple and clear, you promote immersion and have a higher chance of your players entering the Flow to keep them hooked on your game.

By teaching the player the skills needed to accomplish your goals and ramping up the difficulty gradually over time, you keep the player enthralled and focused on more rewards. The higher the skill needed, the bigger the reward given.

In all, you should keep in mind the psychology of how people think so that you can create a better game. By understanding these aspects, you can apply a design to your game that will keep your players stuck to the screen asking themselves “What time is it? How long have I been playing… whatever, this game is absolutely brilliant!”


Well, there you have it! Please be sure to share this article if you enjoyed the read!


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