Go with the cognitive flow: psychology behind gaming

Each month, approximately 30 thousand apps are launched in the Apple App Store ( That is no small feat! Within this gigantic pool of choice, how do you make sure your app becomes the chosen one? For mobile gaming apps, creativity, of course plays a significant role in this process. However, psychology plays a role that should undoubtedly not be undermined. Apart from being creative masterpieces, the most successful mobile games also fall back on the 4 fundamental criteria of a widely renowned psychological phenomenon: cognitive flow. Time to brush off your old psychology 101 book and learn more about the 4 criteria for cognitive flow!

Cognitive flow: a definition

You most certainly have experienced it at some point in your life: being so engaged in an activity that you completely lose track of time. You were in the zone! That is what we call cognitive flow. This cognitive flow is a state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. People who experience cognitive flow go through the following 5 stages (Csikszentmihalyi, 1985):

#1: Extreme focus
#2: A sense of active control
#3: Merging of action and awareness
#4: Loss of self-awareness
#5: Distortion of the experience of time

The 4 criteria that stimulate cognitive flow in games

So, how do we make sure someone goes through these 5 stages and fully emerges into a game? There are 4 important criteria to consider:

#1: The game must have concrete goals and manageable rules

Make sure you provide your players with a dot on the horizon. Different achievements, levels, worlds, et cetera make gaming that much more engaging. With a clear goal in sight, they’ll be more likely to slip into a cognitive flow! Induce cognitive flow by designing challenging but rewarding levels with pinch points at the moments players need them.

#2: The game must fit within the player’s capabilities

Imagine someone asking you to assemble a Rolex watch from scratch. How long do you think you would last before you would simply give up? Chances are (if you’re not a watchmaker), you won’t last longer than 10 minutes. If you’re thrown in at the deep end, you’ll probably end up being put off the idea completely. The same goes for gaming: give players a level that suits their skills. Fresh-faced gamers start with the basics at level one.

#3: Give players clear and immediate feedback

In the world of video games, slaying a boss gives you coins, experience, and/or points. However, if the same boss gets the upper hand, you lose a life. This sense of instant success or instant failure makes you keep trying over and over to defeat the boss or beat the high score. Imagine playing a game and not knowing if you did the right thing or having to wait a day before finding out. Would you reboot your gaming device for that?

#4: Limit distracting factors

Indisputably, this has more to do with external factors. However, during the process of developing a game, you can test the experience for yourself and look out for those speedbumps and roadblocks that are killing the momentum and flow for your potential players. In our fast-paced modern-day world, there is no room for a clunky and cumbrous experience.

Go with the flow

Flow is a dynamic and ever-changing state. Players that experience a sense of cognitive flow, will be determined to overcome every challenge they face. And this is where your challenge begins, as you will need to give those players more challenges to keep them engaged! As the skill levels of players increase, you will need to continue to adjust the level of challenge that is needed to help initiate a state of flow.

Resource: Csikszentmihalyi, I., (1985). Flow. HarperCollins, New York, USA

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