Flow and Dificulty Adjustment in Video Games

For those of you who played Jenova Chen’s FlOw game,  you may have noticed that you easily get sucked in this contemplative aquatic world, floating fluidly from one prey to another. This game is simple and deep at the same time. The level design of flOw is based on a “sausage pattern” (Room – Gate – Room – Gate …) like many games before and you can find the same ingredients that we’ve seen everywhere in game designs such as Enemies,  Power-Ups, Life, etc. But then, what makes flOw such a good experience?


In flOw you incarnate some sort of aquatic creature that you control with the mouse. You have to eat other creatures around you to get stronger. You get to choose if you want to go deeper or come back in previous rooms simply by eating red or blue swimming plankton . Depending on your skills you may choose to “level up” by eating small preys, go directly to a deeper room where bigger foes awaits or come back to a previous room where it was safer. This simple player choice is the base of what Chen call’s “User Centred Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment“.

He base the notion of User Centred DDA on the theory of Optimal Experience (Flow) from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a now well know psychology theory that has touched many domains such as Marketing, Management, Pedagogy, Video games and many more. One important point about flow theory is thatflow is not a synonym for “Fun”. Flow state can be reached in efficient and rewarding work, aesthetic experiences and many other non-ludic activities. What Jenova Chen took from that theory is the main statements of Csikszentmihalyi about how to create the Optimal Experience and used them to support flow in a ludic activity:


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