Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Flow: Gaming for Optimal Experience

Corey Butler
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The concept of flow was developed by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that's pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High). It describes a state of deep enjoyment and total immersion in a particular task or activity. Flow involves highly focused attention, which in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects, such as reduced self-awareness and altered time perception. Time flies when you are having flow, when you lose yourself in what you are doing. The state of flow can be viewed as the opposite of distracted mindwandering-- you know, those moments when you are flipping back and forth between your cell phone and that show you are only half watching on Netflix. Importantly, flow is associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than other states of mind.

In some of the pioneering research on flow, participants were paged randomly during the day and asked to report how they felt and what they were doing. Often, the highest levels of meaning and satisfaction were reported in people who were completely absorbed in something. A variety of activities can produce flow, including sports, playing music, making art, and naturally... playing board games! Csikszentmihalyi talked mainly about chess, but other games should also be capable of producing flow. In fact, anything that allows us to experience a high level of challenge matched by an equally high level of skill should be conducive to this experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi, clear goals, ongoing feedback, feeling in control, and intrinsic motivation all increase the likelihood of flow. These are common ingredients in many board games.

From gallery of shotokanguy


This is my interpretation of Csikszentmihalyi's model. I've often experienced flow while playing chess, other abstracts, heavy Euro games, and sometimes wargames. The frequent delays of having to wait a long time to take my turn, and the interruption of having to look up rules tends to limit my flow during wargames. If I'm losing at chess, or really any game, I'm likely to end up in the upper left corner. In that situation, my skill is not up to the challenge. If I'm playing something mindless like Bingo or Yahtzee, I'm probably going to be sitting in the lower left "apathy" zone. Finally, there are games like St. Petersburg which are not really challenging enough to lead to flow, but still pleasant enough for relaxation and socializing. For me, that puts them somewhere in the lower central part of the graph.

I'm not the first person to apply the theory of flow to board games. Marco Arnaudo started a thread on this a couple of years ago and it is definitely worth a read. The discussion there suggests that games are more likely to produce flow when they are well learned and have minimal downtime. One person even mentioned that the flow experience of playing board games helped relieve a chronic pain condition. However, several people said that video games were more likely to produce flow, and that board games do not always produce enough of an immersive experience. I'm sure that, as in all things, it depends on the game and on the gamer.

The highest rated games on BGG should be pretty good at eliciting a state of flow in people who play them, right? I'm pretty familiar with both editions of Through the Ages, so let's take a closer look at that one. Among skilled players, there should be minimal downtime as cards are laid out and drafted. The goals are clear and there is ongoing feedback in terms of generated resources, science, and victory points. On the other hand, the complexity of the rules might inhibit flow, especially in people who are less familiar with the game. But that complexity makes the game challenging, which should contribute to flow as players develop their skill at it. I've experienced flow while playing Through the Ages, but I definitely lose that feeling if I have to wait too long to make a move.

For me, the game that leads to flow most consistently is blitz chess. It's challenging, provides instant feedback, and constantly requires my full attention. I can lose myself playing blitz and completely tune out what's going on around me. And it's incredibly addictive. This makes me wonder if games that involve time pressure, or playing in "real time" like Galaxy Trucker and Bananagrams, are especially likely to produce flow. They certainly demand one's complete attention. Someone really needs to do a study on this...

Have you experienced flow during board games? What games have done it for you? Let me know in the comments!
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