Be one with Flappy Bird: The science of 'flow' in game design

A core reason why recent hits like Flappy Bird and Threes found success -- and are massively addictive -- lies in the way they put us in a unique zen-like state known as flow.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
10 min read
Flappy Bird
Screenshot by Nick Statt / CNET

When the smartphone phenomenon Flappy Bird took off not so long ago -- and before it morphed into something uncontrollable and became its own hard-to-swallow lesson for the game industry -- it was as if everyone you'd ever known had suddenly stumbled on mobile gaming's most brilliantly manufactured drug. Facebook and Instragram were awash in high score screenshots and admissions of addiction-fueled guilt while all of Twitter might as well have been Flappy Bird references with some news and global chatter sandwiched in between.

One particularly interesting boast from a friend of mine, who had hit a score of 100 long before anyone else I knew had even broken the 50-point mark, included a clearly tongue-in-cheek observation, "Towards the end, I felt like I was hovering above myself, watching myself play..."

Despite it being a purposefully self-deprecating Facebook status -- a feeling of transcendence attached to, of all things, an unholy high score in a miserably difficult mobile game -- it contains a remarkable truth. That feeling described is something everyone one of us has experienced at one point or another: To see through the act of performing a task, release yourself from self-conscious awareness, and be "in the zone" or cruising on autopilot so to speak.

It is in fact one of the central undercurrents, among many in the Flappy Bird saga, that drove the mobile game to massive popularity. While it became well-known for its infuriating difficulty, equally important to its success was what it did to our brains as we found ourselves succeeding at it, a feeling of momentary elation that nestled deep inside our psyches and sent us back for more. Whatever your opinion of Flappy Bird, there's no denying that creator Dong Nguyen had crafted something truly special, worthy even of being called a genius feat, be it one in the realm of manipulative mobile games or the beauty of mindless repetition.

"Some games can do that. Not all games can do that, but when they do it's wonderful," said Frank Lantz, a game design veteran and director of New York University's Game Center. In 2009, Lantz's game studio Area/Code developed the mobile title Drop7, a puzzle game that also created in its players a fleeting sense of zen-like serenity that Lantz acutely recognized.

"It's the kind of thing we get from drugs, from meditation, from spiritual rituals," he added. "I found it recently in playing Flappy Bird. For me, one of things that makes it interesting is that it is an extreme example of this experience."

Flow in game design
That kind of thing Lantz is referring to is a well known phenomenon called flow. It's a psychology term that goes back decades in academia. But the study of flow can be traced back thousands of years in the history of spirituality and the philosophical ruminating around how and why humans perform certain tasks for great lengths of time and with incredible focus -- and precisely what they feel that keeps bringing them back to it.

It also happens to be a common aspect in game design since the advent of the medium -- think Tetris, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong -- and has in the last few years been a guiding principle for some of the industry's most surprising success, from thatgamecompany's Journey and Flower to Markus "Notch" Persson's Minecraft. And now mobile breakouts like Asher Vollmer's Threes, Lantz's own Drop7, and scores of other games usher us towards a state of unprecedented focus and oneness with our actions, driving our addiction to those games as a result.

"There's nothing the same between Minecraft and Flappy Bird, The Sims and WoW [World of Warcraft]. These are fundamentally different experiences and yet the science of them is very much the same," said Curtiss Murphy, founder of GiGi Games and technical director at Alion Science and Technology where he used the aspects of flow to develop the educational simulation game Damage Control Trainer for the US Navy. "They all embody the characteristics of flow and leverage simplicity," Murphy added.

Flow as a concept in psychology was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, when artists would describe in interviews the experience of getting lost in their work as like being carried along by water. Throughout the following decades, Csikszentmihalyi published a number of books on flow, starting with "Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play" in 1975 and later, throughout the '90s, numerous publications on flow as a means to a more effective education, achieving happiness, and unlocking the secrets of motivation and creativity.

What he discovered was that it wasn't just artists, but athletes and chess players and students that relied on flow too. It's now understood to be found within all sorts of other tasks, even everyday ones we barely think about as we do them, from mowing the lawn and shaving to cooking and ironing shirts. Basically anyone who is performing a task that met a certain distinct criteria could achieve a state of flow where your focus and sense of self reach a unique fluidity and, as Csikszentmihalyi put it in Wired magazine in 1996, "The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Csikszentmihalyi broke down the conditions for achieving such a state: There must be a clear and simple task; that task must provide instant feedback; there must be no distractions that either disrupt your concentration or make you ultra-aware of your own actions; and, key to the act of game playing especially, it must be a challenge with appropriate balance with regards to your own skill and the task's difficulty.

The sweet spot between the skill one has and the intrinsic difficulty of the task -- falling between boredom and anxiety -- is where Csikszentmihalyi said the state of flow can be found. Sean Baron/Gamasutra

"If you look at Flow, game designers want to get players into flow, they want them to get into that state where they lose track of time," Murphy explained. As the author of "Why Games Work and the Science of Learning," Murphy sought to understand how pivotal flow was both from a game development and player perspective.

"These states are so stimulating and so engaging, the products just keeps giving them [players] these chemical reactions in their brain," he added.

Finding flow in Flappy Bird and beyond
Flappy Bird was capable of exactly that. Though, as Lantz admitted, it was a more extreme case due in part to the contrast between the appearance and reality of its difficulty.

"If you look at a game like Flappy Bird, it's really interesting. The task is clear, the feedback is immediate and clear; you mess up and die in three seconds," Murphy said. "The rest is balance. In the end it created this conflict where you say, 'This should be very easy. I should be able to do this.' It's hard because it's so precise." No one went into Flappy Bird expecting it to be as brutal as it was. Even better, the game signaled to every person that kept flapping the titular character just how hard the task really was in only a matter of minutes, creating a near-unequivocal difficulty balance no matter how good at games you were.

Flappy Bird's simple pick-up-and-play mechanics created a deceit from the beginning, tricking players into thinking the task was easier than it really was and driving a desire to keep playing. James Martin/CNET

"You get into this state where you say, 'I want to do this, I want to accomplish this goal,'" Murphy said. "And you strive for it." In the case of Flappy Bird, people strived for it again, and again, and again in search for not only the feeling of triumph at the end of a good run, but also the very act of achieving that triumph. It's an experience marked by the brief amount of time when the world appears to melt away and you, in the words of my high-score-achieving friend, appear to be hovering over yourself, watching yourself play.

It's unclear whether Nguyen was cognizant of the idea of flow when designing Flappy Bird, and he did not reply to requests for comment on the matter. Furthermore, nothing from the now-extensive amount of information we have about the origin of Flappy Bird helps us understand more about Nguyen's game design philosophy outside of his art style's retro influences and his love of simplicity. He does however believe in the idea of games requiring an appropriate mental state as the world's collective addiction became the apparent driving factor in his pulling of Flappy Bird from the App Store and Google Play.

"Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem," the 29-year-old Vietnamese resident told Forbes in a recent interview, meaning he at the very least understood the importance of feeling relaxed, and not anxious, when it came to achieving a higher score in his game.

Threes -- a mobile number-based puzzler released for iOS amidst the height of the Flappy Bird craze last week -- on the other hand is a prime example of a polar opposite game that incorporates the very same ideas of flow into its design and mechanics on purpose. The creator, Asher Vollmer, used the principles of flow to turn his title into the next mobile puzzler people can't put down.

Threes, beyond its playful illustrations and theme music, is a numbers-based puzzle in which you must merge multiples of three to create the highest multiple: one's and two's become three's, while three's make six's, six's make twelve's, and so on. But because Threes' level of difficulty increases in lockstep with your ability to overcome the present challenge of creating the next highest multiple, it beautifully fulfills the fourth criteria of flow -- achieving a difficulty-to-skill balance -- in a way few other puzzle games have ever accomplished.

Asher Vollmer's Threes is a numbers-based puzzle game that is especially adept at putting players in a state of flow early on thanks to the way its difficulty manifests itself and evolves over time. Asher Vollmer

"Threes is very, very simple. The task is clear. The feedback is immediate. There's almost no interface in Threes, no complicated movements," said Murphy. "The rest is about, 'Does it strike a balance of difficulty?' It's pretty easy, yet as you play you begin to uncover layers of what you're doing. The same is true of Angry Birds."

By designing a game that is simultaneously simple to grasp and surprisingly deep, Vollmer created an experience that was especially good at putting players in a state of flow. The experience of clearing the board feels like an automatic reflex of your mind and the numbered tiles seem to merge themselves without you needing to think much beyond an innate awareness of your general strategy.

That is until it the game get's really difficult at the higher stages and your flow state tends to break. But helping you achieve flow early on is precisely what brings you back to Threes again and again.

"A mindless mindfulness": The role of distraction

Cutting out distraction, as one of Csikszentmihalyi's requirements for achieving flow, plays an especially interesting role in games where its easy to find yourself too aware of your actions in a way that keeps you from succeeding the more you seemingly try harder. After all, part of the reason Flappy Bird was so maddening was the fact that it was so easy to become obsessed with perfecting its simply mechanics, in effect distracting yourself, breaking any chance at finding flow, and tarnishing future efforts as you only get more anxious and flustered.

To keep yourself from falling into this pit, employing thoughtful distraction -- listening to music, talking with friends for instance -- while playing can actually create what Lantz calls a "mindless mindfulness." "It's almost like we have this frontal cortex that is a nosy boss," he said. "The workers are these subconscious modules, the people actually threading the needle of the task. If you can distract that chatterbox of this nosy bossy, the other modules can perform the function."

This appears to be a key factor for some in entering a flow state while playing. Even Vollmer finds that concentrating too hard on his own game pulls up a mental block to success. "All my best scores are from when I was trying to relax and binged on Netflix. Threes sort of compartmentalizes itself," he told me via Twitter. Lantz himself said some of his best Flappy Bird scores appeared to happen when he was in the middle of a conversation.

"A lot of people will put on headphones. They're not putting their headphones on to listen to the music. If you put on a song you've never heard, that's a distraction. If you put a song you've heard 100 times, you now what to expect," Murphy said. "Now what you're doing is you're using that experience that normally you would think would add difficulty to actually remove the distractions."

The act of distracting your mind essentially from itself is one of the few ways flow criteria can be actively influenced, and is important beyond just games. It's how we subconsciously focus within distracting work environments and how we keep stress or nervousness at bay in intense situations like the minutes before a sporting event.

"We as humans, we look around for things to try and put ourselves in this state of flow," Murphy said. "We know when we work better if the door is shut or it's noisy. Sometimes the noise is adding difficulty, affecting the fourth requirement balance, and then sometimes the noise is something that you're then able to tune out."

Most importantly though, thinking about flow as it relates to game design and our complex relationship with these addictive, feedback-heavy mechanisms illuminates not just what may be going on in our heads as we persist through failure, but also elements of games and their limitations in a way more fundamental to the very nature of play.

"I think games in many cases are about focusing our attention in this way on these moments of what it means to be aware or not of the actions that we do. In that case, games are almost like a kind of folk neuroscience where we get to toy around," Lantz said. "That's not necessarily what we want from great art. It seems a little bit practical, but I'm proud of that. There is something valuable in that."