How to Attain “Flow” Using Gamification

Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that time just slipped by and you were not thinking of anything else? Maybe you were gardening, reading a book, or talking with a friend. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” in 2004 to describe this state of mind. Flow, also known as ‘the zone’, is characterized by being completely absorbed in an activity. It has the characteristics of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. This state of heightened intrinsic motivation lies between two other states of mind – that of anxiety and boredom. When it comes to eLearning, this relationship can best be described in this infographic.

This infographic depicts how the difficulty or challenge of the content/task has a direct correlation with the skills and abilities needed to successfully learn or perform it. As the difficulty of the task or content increases, so does the skill level required. The space where they are commensurate to each other is the space called flow. People learn better when they get to and stay in this state.

However, if you slip out of flow and become either bored or anxious, your brain is not as receptive to processing new information and your learning is not optimal. You can experience this phenomenon directly by playing the “Do You Get into the Flow?” gamified activity. In this activity, you are challenged to translate a number of words/phrases from English to Spanish. In the first round, there are three common words to translate. Depending on your abilities to translate from English to Spanish, you could quickly become bored if you are a native speaker since these words are very easy to translate. Conversely, you could quickly become anxious and frustrated if you don’t know Spanish and can’t translate phrases and sentences. How can this activity be designed so learners can stay in the flow during rounds two and three?

Using gamification design, you have opportunities in each round to make the activities more or less challenging (the Y axis) so it matches your ability level (the X axis). In each round, you can adjust whether a timer or your score is shown, the number of questions included per round, and the difficulty of the translation. Because the difficulty can be adjusted throughout the activity, you can fine-tune it to best match your ability level and remain in the flow.

Beyond this particular game, you can use gamification design to adjust other aspects of the learning experience. For example, you can:

  • Include a countdown timer
  • Change the layout of the activity
  • Change the threshold needed to attain success

Although it can be challenging and more work to create learning experiences that keep learners in a state of flow, providing some opportunities to do so will definitely keep your learners more engaged and ultimately better able to master the content.