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Using Flow in Sim Design

The optimal learning state is that of being in “flow.” The term, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Csikszentmihalyi, M (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimum experience. New York: Harper Perennial.], refers to a mental state of immersion and clarity. This is analogous to when athletes refer to themselves as “being in the zone;” and the term has made its way into a number of fields including video game research. Writers and computer game players alike discuss situations where they lose track of time for hours at a time.
- Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds (Aldrich, 2009)
The model of flow suggests that interactive experiences are at their best when they are always appropriately challenging users - getting easier if a person is struggling and harder if they are excelling. Having said that, for any sim designer, flow needs to be implemented carefully.

Ensuring Flow can be Counter-Intuitive Within a Level
For example, when one is designing a level of a resource planning sim (such as using a Tycoon or Real Time Strategy genre, such as this financial acument for non-financial people sim), the implications can be counter-intuitive. An obvious implementation of flow is: the more a person is struggling, the more resources (such as money) should be made available for them to spend.

(In contrast, the default assumption of a player or designer is the opposite - that more resources flow to those who are successful.) To make this flow version work, a designer may then have to then de-aggregate "access to resources" and "success." For example, if you are managing the production of the farm, you can "do best" by spending the least, in order to get promoted.

Strong "Flow" Implementations can Reward the Wrong Behavior
The problem here is the getting additional resources to spend is a more intrinsic reward structure than the extrinsic motivation of a promotion. Players like spending, and are likely to delibrately do worse in order to get more resources more quickly.

(Similarly, racing games often use the within-level flow technique of "rubber-banding," where opponents that are too far ahead of the player are slowed down, and opponents that are too far behind the player are pulled forward.)

Using Levels as the Structure that Ensures Flow
So using strong flow techniques may be confusing and counter-prodictive within a level. Having said that, it is essential between levels. In fact, as long as there has been games, level design has always been a default framework for enabling flow. The first level is easy. The second level is a bit harder, and so on. The player only gets to a harder level by demonstrating competency in an earlier level.

However, just incrementally more difficult level designs alone does not ensure flow - a series of easy early levels can bore an expert, even if they pass them the first time around. Rather, the inclusion of other flow principles leads to greater success, and even some very simple, yet still hopefully interesting, metrics:
The better the player does, the faster they can get thought a level: One way to measure "flow" in sim design is to measure to what level a player can get in a given amount of time (say, ten minutes). In a well designed sim, a newbie might only get to level 2 in ten minutes. Meanwhile, an expert (such as that same newbie after more experience), might get to level 7 in ten minutes.

The better the player does, the more than can save up critical resources in a level: One can use variations of this when levels absolutely have to be fixed in length. One can instead ask, how many resources (money, energy, extra time) can one accumulate by level X? Here, in a well designed sim, by level 5, an expert should have accumulated ten times the amount of critical resources than a newbie.

Conclusion
Artificially ensuring flow, like the specific case of "rubber-banding" in racing games, can be an exploitable cheat that undermines the experience, including game-play and simulation model. So flow must align with fidelity, such as in level design, and not be an excuse to undermine it.

Having said that, flow can be measured through easy metrics that impact sim design, rather than just more complicated physiological techniques. One example is, "how far can a player get in ten minutes based on their experience."

There is a new pedagogy and instructional methodology that is being uncovered by and for sim design. This is just one glimpse into a whole new philosophy of design.

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