Flow, Is It a Game?

For the last week and a half, I have played a video game called Flow on the PS4. Unlike most video games where the objective is to get from one place to another or compete against somebody else, Flow is one of just growing. The objective of this game is to just eat some amoeba looking creatures and evolve. After analyzing what constitutes an activity to be a game, the question has come around, Is Flow a game? The problem with Flow is that the way it was structured blurs the meaning between game and play, however Jesper Juul’s clarification of what institutes a game pretty much suggests that Flow is not a game at all. Why? According to Juul “Play is mostly taken to be a free-form activity, whereas game is a rule-based activity” (Juul, 28). Based on Juul’s definition of game Flow cannot be a game, however it is a video game. The problem with defining a video game as a game is that video games can be an activity that is playful or that are simply governed by rules. Since Flow does not have any rules to which the player must abide by then the person is just simply playing. In addition, the player is given the choice of either eating the creature and grow bigger or just simply wonder around the environment. Clearly, if Flow was a game then the player’s movement would be governed by rules that would force him to follow in order to achieve a certain goal.

Interestingly, the creator of the game Jeneva Chen created Flow as a project for his master’s thesis. The intention of Chen’s game was simple and that was to test the concept of dynamic difficulty adjustment or DDA. The concept of DDA is that a game will adjust itself (level wise) to the behavior of the player. However, Chen’s version of DDA, which he calls EDA (Embedded Difficulty Adjustment) is a little different from the practical concept. According to Chen “In EDA, the difficulty changes based on player’s subconscious will. It does not change by system or designer” (engadget.com).  Furthermore, if Juul’s definition of game is taken into account and use it to analyze Flow, the video game would not meet the requirement for one simple reason. According to one of Juul’s six features that makes a game states “4. Player effort: The player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome. (Games are challenging.)” (Juul, 37). In contrast, Chen’s EDA concept which is embedded in Flow gives the player the option of avoiding a challenge, thus making it easier to pass the level without breaking a sweat. This is supported by Chen himself who said:

Basically each level has different difficulties. It’s not a linear progression. I want to see if the player can adjust by himself. I think by level 5 there’s this ring monster that is really hard to defeat. Lots of people tell me, “oh it’s really hard!” but what they did is skip it, or return to previous level to eat more and grow bigger, then return to fight the ray monster. It’s not like in traditional games where you have to beat one level after another (engadget.com).

While video games are playful activities that are meant to entertain us for a while, not all video games are “games”, it requires a challenge and a goal to which one must strive. A video game such as Flow provides too much freedom to the player thus dictating the outcome without really making much effort.flow_ps4_hero_tablet

Jesper Juul. “Video Games and the Classic Game Model” in Half-Real: Video Gamesbetween Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. pp. 23-54.

Ross Miller. “Joystiq interview: Jenova Chen” http://www.engadget.com, 2006. https://www.engadget.com/2006/09/18/joystiq-qanda-jenova-chen/

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5 thoughts on “Flow, Is It a Game?

  1. For all intents and purposes, Chen’s Flow is a mechanization of Csikzentmihalyi’s theory of “flow,” or optimal experience. FOllowing that, it’s interesting that you focus on Juul. And, I question the statement that it doesn’t have “rules.” The game is coded, so it strictly follows certain rules: eat = get bigger; get hit = get smaller; boss at the bottom; harder/faster/nastier/more difficult the further down you go; easier the further up you go. All of that is coded into teh game as “rules,” just like soccer has certain rules (ball in goal = point; don’t use feet; etc). What Flow does not necessarily have, however, is a very obvious goal that is highlighted.

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  2. You mentioned that according to Juul’s argument, this is not a game. Nevertheless, if another theorist argued otherwise, how would this change your argument?

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  3. Flow is a little different among console and web browser versions. I know the console version eventually has an end with credits once your worm like creature becomes large enough. When you made this blog post, we still had not learned about counter gaming. I believe Juul’s rules become a little blurred in this area so would you consider Flow a game now knowing counter gaming has different rules or ways to industry gaming?

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    • I agree and think the argument needs a rehab. Counter gaming definitely has its own set of rules and criteria because it is in its own sphere. It’s in the MoMA as a part of their interactive design display of video games as some of the other commenters have made aware and I would like to hear the authors specific outlook on Flow because it is art and a game with rules that lead you in a specific direction. Now that direction being arbitrary as in counter gaming but it exists.

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  4. Because Flow is in the MoMA, it is considered not only a game, but also art. Would you also oppose it being considered art, since you do not think it is a game?

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