What makes it a game? – Flow Edition


We’ve already gave a great deal of time when it came to talking about video-games, and what determines a game to be fun. But this time, we’re here to discuss on what makes something a game, and what certain common attributes shared amongst today’s video-games makes something a video-game. Per Juul’s definition, he says “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome are assigned different values, the player exerts effort to influence the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable” (Juul 2003). So, per Juul here, he basically says a game is something fixed rules, negotiable consequences, variable outcome, player attachment to outcome, player effort, and valorization of outcome.

Well, for me to determine this myself, I’m going to have to go over the game’s basic concept and objective, how it plays over time, and whether it truly connects to Juul’s rules of what a game. So, in the game fl0w, you are placed randomly in an aquatic environment with a bunch of 2D planes. There is no instruction given, but the controls within this game are simple enough for one to figure out quickly. Then it is up from there for the player to also figure out the game’s objective. From exploring the game through yourself, you quickly learn the way to switch through the 2D planes is by eating a specific organism, and that through these planes you have the linear objective of eating the other organisms to grow bigger. There are several types of other organisms that you can feast on by eating their significant parts of their models, which in turn, grants you a bigger size. This game’s objective goes on repeatedly until you grow big enough. The process does seem bored, however, there are different aspects of the game that provide increasing difficulty for the player to be entertained. These are such as organisms that also can eat you which makes you smaller, other organisms have different movement patterns, and the difficulty in navigating your own worm organism. This enough has kept me entertained, however, I feel that it won’t keep me entertained for long because of its repetitiveness, and lack of diversity when it comes to objective and environment.


But, whether I’m bored or not is not the topic right now, it is whether fl0w is truly considered as a game. Going off my experience that I have just recalled above, I think that fl0w indeed classify as a game.  If we go by Juul’s definition and diagram, this is, technically considered a borderline game. Let’s go into the multiple points of Juul’s definition that apply to this game, and why it makes it a borderline game.

Fixed Rules

The first point being here is a game has a set of fixed rules. In fl0w, we are not clearly given a set of fixed rules, but we can eventually figure out the set of rules quickly by playing through the game. In fl0w, there are many rules to advance your objective of getting bigger. First to get bigger, you must eat a specific organism’s part after defeating it. Second, you can only scroll through other 2D planes to find other organisms that can make you grow bigger by using the red and blue organisms that have a ripple effect. Third, to grow bigger you must also avoid being eaten by other organisms. And finally, you must explore to find other organisms or you’ll never accomplish some point of your objective. This here I have concluded must be the set of rules for this game after experiencing, and although I may be missing information, the apparent rules figured out by playing the game can justify for this being a game.

Variable Outcome

This second point comes from one of the first point’s rules of the game. In this game, there are variable outcomes depending on what you do, and how you go about doing these actions. What I refer to specifically here, is how you go about attempting to eat other organisms, as if you do not time and carefully attempt to eat an organism, you will potentially lose your size. Basically, variables such as how fast you move and how sharp you turn affect your outcome when trying to eat another organism.

Negotiable Consequences

This third point also comes hand in hand with the second point’s explanation and justification. The consequences are clear in this game, if you do not carefully move around when attempting to eat an organism, you will be punished by being eaten and having your size reduced. However, it is negotiable, due to possibly having good results from preying on different types of enemies. The bigger the organism, the higher the reward, but also the higher the difficulty.

Player Effort

The player does exert quite the amount of effort by challenging him/herself to the more difficult enemies to be reward more greatly. This difficulty comes from attempting to eat bigger organisms that have a greater chance of eating you due to their size. Although there is no great amount effort, the effort is still there to be acknowledged, and gradual.


(Unlike some certain exponentially harder games…)

The Unmet Criteria: Player Attachment to Outcome & Valorization of Outcome

Both the player attachment to outcome and valorization of outcome come with great relation to each other, as the player in the end determines the valorization of the result of the game with his/her emotions about the game. While playing fl0w, I had never felt a player attachment to outcome, nor had a valorization of outcome. This is because when I think of these two points of Juul’s definition here, I perceive that the outcome here is different than the outcome in “Variable Outcomes.” The outcome here seems to be more of an ultimate goal at the end of the game that comes from doing objectives. However, in fl0w, there was not an ultimate goal to be met, it was to just get bigger and bigger. And once you had just reached a certain point, the game then cycles you back into a new beginning, leaving you to play once again starting from nothing. There was no attachment due to not having anything to become attached to since it was just a game of eating and growing bigger. In turn, this lack of attachment gave a lack of valorization to the outcome. The valorization (basically meaning to give value or validity) had never occurred because I never felt genuinely attached to this game. And that is not only because of its lack of anything to get to attached to, it was also because of the length of the game. The overall game time is something of around two hours, which I find very lacking for a game if I were to get attached to it.


The Verdict

After carefully examining through Juul’s main points of what a game is we can see here that fl0w meets the requirements for more than half of Juul’s points of what a game is, but falls through when it comes to the points of Player Attachment to Outcome, and Valorization of Outcome. This then, converts fl0w to being categorized as an “Open-ended simulation” per Juul, in which there is no valorization of outcome. In conclusion, fl0w passes off as a game, but a borderline game.


15 thoughts on “What makes it a game? – Flow Edition

    • Thank you! I wish I could’ve elaborated more on some points, as I thought some were insufficient still. More specifically, I think I could have used some better reasoning as to why there is not enough sufficiency in this game to provide a valorization of income and player attachment to outcome.


    • I can understand your opinion, but in the essence of a game not having a clear end objective to reach, it makes it all the more difficult to provide the player with something to attach to on the outcome of a game.


  1. Great blog! I noticed you ended the blog by saying that the game flow doesn’t create a “Player Attachment to Outcome.” I personally would have to disagree because I feel like the game creates a high sense of competition. I feel like being the biggest character on the map, “top monkey,” makes you feel a sense of pride in a way. If you do not care if your character becomes bigger or not, then what would be the point in even playing the game?


    • I can see what you mean, the sense of achievement comes from the superiority of being the biggest being on the map, however there is the point right after this where the game resets you back into the smallest being on the map. I think this progress reset leaves with you with no lasting satisfaction to create a player attachment to outcome.


  2. I liked the Dark Souls gif: a game which really displays difficulty in a very interesting way. By comparison, Fl0w has no challenge what so ever. While this would be fun for a casual game, it makes the game exceptionally boring, and it was hard to play this game for 2 weeks straight. I had to constantly find new ways to distract myself while I was playing, such as listening to music or chatting with friends online. When you say “I feel that it won’t keep me entertained for long because of its repetitiveness, and lack of diversity when it comes to objective and environment,” I completely agree. This lack of dynamism kills the game for me, but it seems like the Flash, PC version of this game is by far the worst offender in this capacity. The second character at least adds some “replayability,” but you are just running through the same stages with a different set of movement options. Overall, really disappointed with this game, but I enjoyed your blog post.


    • Thanks for the comment, and this emphasis on the lack of dynamism is the whole reason why I find some games boring. From a previous blog I stated that the new generation that offers a great amount of dynamism creates an overshadowing of many previous games due to the creation of many new features and such for much more satisfaction and entertainment.


  3. Really thorough analysis. I would point out that trying to call it an open-ended simulation might be a mistake, as that’s a particular type of game that Juul is referring to. Additionally, an open ended simulation has player attachment to outcome, but you indicated there is none in fl0w. Your analysis might also push fl0w to the not games level due to 2 parts being missing. That, however, is a variation in his analysis.


  4. Do you think that you could have foun game attachment if you could remain an ideal size? Also, wouldn’t the Valerie Zeeshan of outcome would be to stretch the time between beginning and imploding? I think that this would have been my goal…. just to extend time from start to end, which in turn would have created some sort of attachment to the game.


    • The only way I could have found attachment to this game is if I had worked much harder towards the ending, and if the ending was somehow longer lasting in order to create an actual impact towards my attitude of the game overall.


  5. I liked the comparison between games that are notoriously and designed to be difficult, and those games that are meant to be relaxing and sort of mind-numbing much like Flow seems to be. I have never played but your descriptions make me wish I had.


    • Thank you for the comment, the difference in difficulty makes a game much more dynamic and entertaining. I think this only because that in order to create a more difficult game, it must have more characteristics and features implemented in order to keep players on their guard for a progression of difficulty.


  6. I like the thoroughness of your analysis of flOw’s merit as a game. I placed less emphasis on the criteria of player attachment to outcome and unequal valuation of outcomes because they are not entirely in the game developer’s hands; I would instead simply guess whether or not they intended for those criteria to be met, because not everyone will care about the outcomes, for reasons that are often not under the developers’ control. flOw was somewhat bland, which is why some players (like you and me) did not care much about getting to the end. I would still prefer that outcome to, say, losing and being sent back to the beginning over and over, if only because it’s the less boring outcome. So there can be unequal valuation (valorization) of outcomes for some people. The lack of attachment to outcome happens because the magnitude of the value of the outcome is too small to matter. Someone who finds the game to be a decent challenge may actually value winning enough to fulfill the criterion of player attachment to outcomes, however. I agree that flOw is a game, and I think that the last two criteria, which are subjective, cannot be part of an objective definition of what constitutes a game.


  7. Flow isn’t like other games. It doesn’t provide a clear objective to go through. But Fl0w meets the requirements for more than half of Juul’s points of what a game is, but falls through when it comes to the points of Player Attachment to Outcome, and Valorization of Outcome.


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