Flow States and Player Presence

I’ve taken the recent research I’ve done and pulled it together as a section for my contextual review, called Flow States and Player Presence.

3.3.1 Flow States and Player Presence

When meditating, a practitioner expects to find themselves in a timeless state, where they are aware and present in the current moment (Grossman, 2004). A similar feeling, known as a flow state, is experienced whilst playing games and performing tasks. In his studies on happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyai defined flow as a state in which “Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.” (Csikszentmihalyai, 1990) He also states that “Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time becomes distorted.”(Csikszentmihalyai, 1990). There is a distinct parallel between meditative and flow states, so flow theory could be a powerful tool when designing a meditative game experience.

Csikszentmihalyi developed a series of theories to aid the emergence of a flow state, the most relevant of these being the idea of a “Flow Zone”, sometimes referred to as “The Zone” in video game circles. (Chen, 2006) This is the space where the activity that a person is performing is balanced between providing challenge and being appropriate to the participant’s abilities. A challenge that is too punishing provokes anxiety, whereas one that is effortless creates boredom (Kremers, 2009). The flow space is a safe zone, where “psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur” (Chen, 2006).

Along with their resemblance to meditation, flow states are comparable to immersion in video games, where the player loses track of time and forgets external pressures due to being drawn into the game (Chen, 2006). It is clear that digital environments and visualizations can be used to immerse the player in a virtual space, creating a flow or meditative state; “Virtuality is conceptualized as a sub-component of interactivity: for us in digital environments, 3D display technologies are a meditating presence.”(Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, 2014)

Immersion is a perceptive and psychological phenomenon that can be seen as a physical reality or as a subjective condition. To be immersed, there must be a degree of absorption into an environment, with either the exclusion of the real world, or the media reality being the dominant actuality. (Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, 2014)

This is a vague concept, however the factors that contribute to an immersive experience can be analysed. Presence, a form of spacial immersion, has been defined as the sense of being in a mediated environment with the perception of non-mediation (Witmer, Singer, 1998). Presence is a psychological, perceptual and cognitive consequence of immersion, where the player feels they exist within the virtual environment they are immersed in (Mestre, 2006).

Wibel and Wissmath found that “spatial presence can intensify existing media effects such as enjoyment” (Wibel, Wissmath, 2011), cementing presence as a powerful tool for creating enjoyable media. However, it is more than that, being especially useful within interactive media that aims to provoke emotion. A present player will experience natural reactions and emotions while interacting with the game (Kuntz, 2013). Tavinor’s theory of AAM and HCE, as discussed earlier, comes into play here, as these natural emotions are a real version of HCE, where a player is truly moved by something they now feel is real, even though they continue to be aware of its virtual nature.

Along with special presence, a player can be made to feel present when a sense of cognitive presence is developed. This is when the mind, as opposed to the senses, believes it is a part of the virtual environment. To create this, the player must believe that their actions have a credible effect on said virtual environment, which stems from a sense of coherent game rules, with expectations being met (Kuntz, 2013).

Kuntz, a board member of the French National VR Association, suggests that presence is easier to generate within a non-realistic styled environment, as the human brain expects real life physics and feedback when it is given something that is visually real (Kuntz, 2013). When the player accepts a stylized, non-realistic environment as their “new real”, only the previously mentioned game rules apply, and when combined with the idea of coherence, create a new reality for the player to be present in (Kuntz, 2013).

It is clear from the idea of presence that interactivity can be described as a perceptive reality. On top of dominating the senses, how real this feels is determined by the engagement and personal involvement of the user (Gingrich, Emets, Renaud, A, 2014).

A number of strategies exist to create presence and immersion within virtual environments. Ambience and atmospherics are one of these. Ambience is a method of creating mood that is linked heavily to an environment and focuses on creating a believable world though elements that build the character of the space (Kremers, 2009). An example of this can be found in David Cage’s “Heavy Rain” (Quantic Dream, 2010). The bleak and desperate mood of the game is conveyed though natural elements of the environment. The low saturation of the dark, overcast sky and the oppressive, heavy dripping of constant rain effects induces a low mood in the player, without including any unnatural elements.

Effects art is commonly used as an atmospheric device. “An easy way to add to the natural ambiance of an environments is by logical and consistent use of particle effects” (Kremers, 2009). An example of this can be seen in the environments of “Bioshock” (2K, 2007). These mainly consist of destruction related effects such as sparks, water dripping, fire and smoke, supporting the idea that the city is in complete disrepair. This heightens the sense of danger that the player feels, affecting their emotions by assuring them that not only should they worry about the game’s enemies, the environment could kill them too.

Atmosphere is slightly different from ambiance. Though it also produces presence and emotion in an audience, it often involves unnatural elements in addition to natural ambience (Kremers, 2009). Colour, light and shape are used deliberately to heighten drama or emotion, with the audience being aware of this, but still moved. An example of this would be atmospheric lighting, commonly seen in film and theatre, where the colour of the lighting is directly related to the emotions the characters are feeling.

Increasing believability by suggesting that a game level is part of a real world that the player is not the centre of is an effective way to aid presence. Including flora and fauna can add a natural feel that suggests a whole ecosystem at work, whilst also adding vibrancy and interest to the game (Kremers, 2009).This can be seen in “Proteus” (Key, Kanaga, 2013) where the combination of a rich ecosystem and procedural sound effects create a beautiful and immersive virtual playground.

Another common method used to anchor players into a game experience is through use of temporal grounding. This is when an area appears natural because it possesses older architecture, wear and tear and natural foliage. References to the world’s past or personal histories of characters can also be included to enhance the richness of the world (Kremers, 2009). This is an issue when creating a meditational game, as references to the real world will interfere with the player’s disconnection from their everyday life. (reference???) Auge’s theory of non-spaces could be used as an alternative.

Auge states that places are defined by history, culture and language (Auge, 2009), so they are temporally grounded. Without these it is a non-place. One of the main differences between places and non-places is that places are organically social, whereas non-places are isolating (Auge, 2009). While existing in a non-place, a person loses their identity, and takes on the new identity that the space assigns them;

“a person entering the space of a non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver. Perhaps he is still weighted down by the previous day’s worries, the next day’s concerns, but he is distanced from them temporarily by the environment of the moment…the passive joys of identity-loss.” (Auge, 2009)

The aim of meditation is to be present in the moment and to forget the worries of everyday life (Grossman, P, 2004) and this certainly seems to be a product of the non-space. Perhaps the design methods that cause people to distance themselves from each other, become anonymised and give into pre-defined narratives in an urban design context, can be used to bring them closer to themselves, explore how they feel within and give them power to warp those narratives in a game context. ”what reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment…the passenger in non-space has the simultaneous experiences of a perceptual present and an experience with the self” (Auge, 2009).

Grossman, P. 2004. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 57(1) pp.35-43

Csikszentmihalyai, M.1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Reprint Edition. New York: Harper and Row

Chen, J. 2006. Flow in Games. [MFA thesis]. University of Southern California

Kremers, R. 2009. Level Design: Concept, Theory, Practice. 1st Edition. CRC Press.

Auge, M. 2009. Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. New Edition. New York: Verso Books

Proteus .2013[Digital Download]. Windows PC. Ed Key and David Kanaga.

Gingrich, O., Emets, E. and Renaud, A. 2014.Transmission – Sonifying, Visualising and Analysing Neural Activity through Telepresence. In: Electronic Visualisation and the Arts (EVA 2014), London, July 8-10 2014. London: BCS. [online]. Available from:http://www.bcs.org/upload/pdf/ewic_ev14_s22paper1.pdf[Accessed 12 January 2014]

Witmer, B, Singer, J. 1998. Measuring Presence in Virtual Environments: A Presence Questionnaire. Presence. 7(Jun) pp.225 – 240

Mestre, D.R., Fuchs, P. 2006. Immersion et Présence. Traité de la Réalité Virtuelle. Ecole des Mines de Paris. Pp 309-338.

Weibel, D., Wissmath, B. 2011. Immersion in Computer Games: The Role of Spatial Presence and Flow. International Journal of Computer Games Technology. (2011)

Kuntz, S. 2013. Creating Virtual Reality Games: The Fundamentals. Gamasutra [online]. 23 May 2013. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/192810/creating_virtual_reality_games_.php?page=1

Quantic Dream, 2010, Heavy Rain [Blu-Ray disk], Sony Playstation 3, Sony Computer Entertainment


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