How do you Design Games for Flow State

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This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Flow is a really sought after experience in game design. It’s really engaging and enthralling because players lose a sense of time and space when they are in the flow state. They become lost and completely enveloped in the game world.

But designing a game to engage players’ flow states is not an easy feat to accomplish. So, just how do you design games to that take advantage of this flow state?

This article outlines and describes the flow state in the player experience. It’ll also explain the most important and influential reasons for designing for flow. Flow state is comprised of a balance of goals and feedback and how both are reflected and influenced by perceptual control. So, this article will examine how these disparate elements work together to help players engage in that state.

Difficulty modulation is an important aspect to flow state in players. Games can’t be so easy so that players just fly by on autopilot. Likewise, they can’t be so hard that they become discouraged and lose the motivation to play them. Therefore, balancing the difficulty of a game is a critical part of designing for the flow state.

However, competitive orthogames introduce another factor in designing for the flow state: other players’ actions and abilities. Therefore, this article will examine how pre-developed knowledge from players influences how they play, act, and interact with other players in these competitive orthogames.

Finally, this article closes on the applied flow state in its use in games as well as the most critical considerations for game design and the application of games-based learning.

Flow Described

So what exactly is the flow state? It’s often a very beguiling and seductive experience. Flow state often occurs in game play when the player’s attention is a completely captured by the game and they lose all sense of time and space. However, the flow state is not just limited to games. Instead, creatives such as artists, musicians, and writers often experience the flow state when they are completely engrossed with their work.

In addition, talented athletes also experience the flow state when they are tasked with performing at the peak of their abilities.  Students can also experience the flow state when they are studying or pursuing subjects that they are naturally interested in and are intrinsically motivated to pursue.

While flow state can occur for many different people through many different activities; the effect remains the same. Someone in the flow state is completely absorbed in the task and are wholly focused on the activity. They are not distracted by music, conversation, or even digital notifications.

So flow state can occur in individuals others than gamers. But gaming is one of the most common elements that engages players so wholly and fully in this feeling. That’s because really great, challenging, and engaging games require players to think and concentrate on a task or activity. Such is the critical elements for the flow state and why it’s such as sought after outcome for game designers.

Why Design for Flow?

So what would even be the purpose of designing a game for the flow state if it’s something that’s only achieved on the player’s end? It’s because, as the designer,  it’s your responsibility to provide a structure for interaction so that players can more easily enter a flow state.

In addition, players who enter the flow state demonstrate a higher level of game performance that also translates over to increased academic performance. As a result, players undertake more challenges as well as become more immersed in the interactivity of games: both of which result in more positive outcomes with games-based learning.

This immersion that is a byproduct of flow state is also closely tied with the development of a playful learning experience. Especially one that provides players agency in determining how they want to play, interact, and learn.

Of course, player agency is an integral part of successful games. But how exactly do other formal game elements influence and affect players’ development of flow state in games?

Goals, Feedback, and Flow

One of the main formal elements of helping players enter a state of flow is to design and structure clear goals for players. These goals should be clear as well as convey relevant meaning to players when they appear in the game. Sometimes these goals are dependent on one another: such as attaining a specific sword for a player in an RPG in order to slay a specific creature. In this way, the sword represents a clear goal in a linear path towards achieving the goal (slaying the creature).

Players should also be provided feedback in their pursuit of these goals. This feedback should be immediate and appropriate for players in order to help them more easily enter the flow state. This is especially relevant for digital games as even a minuscule amount of lag between player actions and results could break a player’s sense of immersion.

This represents an area where serious games, learning games, and educational games can close the gap with commercially available entertainment games. By providing an individual feedback that is related (but not completely connected to learning outcomes); players can more easily enter the flow state that supports their continued engagement. Such continued play should then link other formal game elements such as game mechanics and dynamics to the ultimate learning outcome for players.

Likewise, the game doesn’t need to be the only vehicle for feedback. Getting feedback from other learners and players provides yet another dimension for individuals to learn and adjust. This feedback can come from competitive play with other players; cooperative collaboration; or through comparison of individual results. In addition, instructors and facilitators can also change game settings, rules, and structures in order to better accommodate players’ performance and overall activity within the game.

Perceptual Control

One of the most critical parts of developing a flow state for players is making sure that they have both the agency and the ability to control the outcome of their circumstances via the formal elements of the game. This perceptual control refers to the actual systems that players use to affect these outcomes. This form of control is what makes games much different from watching a movie, reading a book, or other forms of narratives. Perpetual control gives players the ability to affect and change outcomes.

However, this control is not monolithic. Instead, designers should set elements and structures through which players can exact that control in the game. This makes it so that while players may attain “mastery” of the controls in the game, it may not always indicate mastery of the game. An example of this are games may have very rudimentary controls (i.e. Guitar Hero). But the use of those controls, and how they are combined with other game dynamics, make it so that there exists an opportunity for players to enter a flow state through the use of more challenging formats to augment those controls though more difficult songs, challenges, and changing rhythms.

The development of player controls is perhaps the most difficult and critical for designers for helping players enter a flow state. That’s because really intuitive controls can make it so that the players become more easily engrossed in the game versus ineffective control schemes which cause players to lose interest in the game.

Player interest can be increased even more when player’s decisions cause different outcomes and impacts in the game based on their selections. As such, the game becomes more repayable as specific outcomes based on specific player controls are not guaranteed. This can come about through game design (i.e. rougelike games with procedurally generated levels) or it can come about through competitive games such as playing against opponents whose actions may not be as predicable.

Difficulty Modulation

Opposing players actions and reactions to others in the game represents one facet of difficulty modulation. This is because not all players have the same level of skills and interest in the game and therefore react differently according to game conditions. For designers this means creating games that have a “sweet spot” in its difficulty that doesn’t make the game too hard (or too easy) to master. Such pinpointing is part of designing games for players to more easily enter the flow state.

This represents a main challenge for designers of single player digital games. That’s because these games must change dynamically accordingly to the player in order to keep them engaged in this “sweet spot” of difficulty modulation. The same can be said for games-based learning as games that are too easy also don’t represent an adequate challenge for the player. They therefore risk falling into boredom. Likewise, games that are too hard make it so that they may stop playing the game out of frustration.

This doesn’t mean that players enter games at the sweet spot of difficulty modulation. On the contrary, players must start out at a level that is easy for them to adapt to the mechanics and dynamics of the game and then ease into more difficult challenges that further engage them in play. Specifically in instructor lead games-based learning; individuals can dynamically change the difficulty of a game in order to provide a negative feedback loop where the experience will adjust according to the performance of the learner.

Pre-Developed Knowledge and Flow

Sometimes players pre-developed or pre-achieved knowledge will be useful or important for determining if they enter a flow state when playing a game. While subjective experience with other games or other experiences can be helpful, knowing how one’s actions affect and influence the outcome of game play is also important to know.

This can be particularly impactful for games that require a high degree of coordination and difficult learning curve to perform well. These occur frequently in MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena) which is a type of video game where two teams compete against one another to achieve in-game objectives. Games like DOTA require a significant amount of foreknowledge in order for participants to play and compete effectively. This high requirement can often be a barrier to players from entering the flow state; but can produce an experience of flow akin to what high performance athletes experience when they are performing at the top of their abilities.

The amount of foreknowledge can change considerably based on the application of games. For educational, learning, and serious games, this amount of pre-development knowledge should only minimally affect game play as learning the mechanics and dynamics of the game often go hand in hand with the learning outcomes of its design. However, care should be taken that if a when a flow state is entered by students in serious game design; that it serve the greater purpose and learning outcomes intended by instructors.

Competitive Experience and Flow

While games like DOTA and other MOBAs often require a high degree of pre-developed knowledge; the same cannot be said for other directly competitive games. Some specific abstract games require only knowledge of the game’s formal structures; while others require this as well as some advanced knowledge on tactics and strategy in order to be successful.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when applying competitive games for teaching and learning is to pair players together of equal or similar skill level. Doing so ensures that players are provided with the correct degree of difficulty and are augmenting the game so that it is not too easy nor is it too difficult for players. The result of which is structure in which the flow state can be more easily entered for individuals.

This ranking and matchmaking should ideally change and increase to provide more competitive and able players more difficult opponents and challenges to attempt. This makes it so that the difficulty is increased relative to players abilities and the abilities of their competitors.

Unlike single player or campaign games, competitive games rely on the experience and interaction with a player with like or similar skill levels. This also relates and is connected to the social nature of games and how play provides a structure of interaction with other students, learners, and gamers.

Applied Flow

The use and value of flow in games was previously covered. But, how is flow applied in game design? The formal elements of games include mechanics, dynamics, components, aesthetics, and to some extent story and technology. Flow as a result is an outcome gained by players based on a careful construction of these formal elements that provides excellent feedback through difficulty modulation and goals through player control.

Flow is an important process to design and uphold in games, because it can often mean the difference between a widely successful commercial game and a mildly successful one. Ultimately, flow state is in the hands of players. They can achieve this through thoughtful game design and is something that is sought after by players: even though they may not be that explicit about it.

Likewise, more hobbyist and enthusiastic gamers may embark on their own mission to achieve flow state. This can come about through their review and study of games, game elements, and game situations. Professional poker players and others who make their living playing and competing with games often necessitate this.  However, the individual student and learner may not be prepared to make this kind of commitment.

Despite this, serious game designers can merge the applicable and relatively addictive nature of commercial games with the learning outcomes and educational achievements that serious games have to offer.

Flow Design Considerations

Ultimately games-based learning is about using games as a medium for teaching and learning. Games-based learning is based on experiential learning which focuses on learning as the transformation of experience into knowledge. The purpose of designing for flow is to give a player a good gaming experience: specifically one that they can use to meet an expected educational outcome.

Therefore, when designing for flow, designers should consider how potential changes to game components, mechanics, and formal structures may or may not take a player out of a state of flow. This balanced approach to game design also includes providing a wide variety of activities and difficulties for players to engage and experience the game. These don’t have to be unique opportunities; as common game mechanics and structures can be used regularly and applied in different contexts to provide unique game dynamics to players.

Therefore, when designing for flow, creators target three levels of player patterns: feeling the aesthetics for the game; examining and discerning the game’s dynamics; and finally mastering the game’s mechanics and dynamics. Following this, the best designed games also augment and adjust their tolerances for players’ interactions in order to make the game relatively challenging for the individual.

Games-Based Learning and Flow

Flow is an outcome from the most successful and addictive commercial games. It’s something that can also be designed for with educational, learning, and serious games. When using games-based learning, flow can be utilized as a way for learners to become deeply engaged in the learning process. Likewise, flow can also be accomplished in other mediums such as traditional college and university classes when examining curriculum from a game designer’s perspective.

Instructors, teachers, and professors educating in a more orthodox environment will highly prize the state of flow engaged by students as they become more deeply engaged with the learning material and the intended outcomes. However, like games designers, flow is achieved from two different perspectives: from players and learners engagement in the game and designers and instructors preparation of the game and learning materials.

Part of the way that educators can approach teaching and learning like a game designer is to focus on the experience of learning and game play. Specifically, they should focus on applications of learning outcomes outside of the classroom and game: thus providing learners with a wider perspective of what and how they can apply their newfound knowledge.

This is often best accomplished with serious games that are designed from the ground up with a learning outcome in mind. The closer that educators and designers can get to connecting cognitive activities in the game with both intended learning outcomes and practical applications; the better they can more wholly educate students while also emphasizing a prioritization of flow in game play.


This article covered how to design games for the flow state. Flow was described and defined in relation to game design. Specific reasons were offered for designing games for players’ flow states. The formal elements of games were identified: specifically goals, feedback, and perceptual player control as it relates to the development of the flow state.

Perceptual control was related to difficulty modulations and how changing challenges that adjust to player competency and efficacy help continue to engage players in the game and maintain their flow state. This was further complicated by games that require some kind of pre-developed knowledge in order to play more advanced games. Those advanced games also included competitive games where prior game knowledge is often necessary to compete and play at a higher level.

Finally, this article ended on applied flow for games as well as design considerations for integrating flow into game play. Lastly, the flow state in games-based learning was addressed in applications for educators and instructors.

This article was about designing games for flow state.   To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

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Borgers, M. (2019, January 31). The secret of using the flow state for studying. Retrieved June 23, 2022, from

Burnes, D., Butchko, J., Patrick, S., Wells, J., & Williams, E. (2015). Maximizing effectiveness of educational games through gaming experience. From andrewd. ces. clemson. edu/courses/cpsc414/spring14/papers/group5. pdf [accessed January 2015].

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Chou, Y. S., Hou, H. T., Chang, K. E., & Su, C. L. (2021). Designing cognitive-based game mechanisms for mobile educational games to promote cognitive thinking: an analysis of flow state and game-based learning behavioral patterns. Interactive Learning Environments, 1-18.

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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