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Subject: Cognitive Flow in Board Games rss

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Marco Arnaudo
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If you are a member of the gaming community you are probably familiar with the concept of cognitive flow so often used to describe the state of inebriating hypnosis one finds oneself when playing good video games. A good intro to the topic can be found here:
http://gamasutra.com/view/feature/166972/cognitive_flow_the_...

I am a little surprised that this concept does not appear to have been applied to board games - which I can tell you from experience sure can put ME in a state of flow. Battlestar Galactica, Arkham Horror, Julius Caesar, Shogun, and too many others to recount, certainly have put me in a state of flow many times - not for the entire game maybe, but enough for me to remember the experience as enormously pleasant. And after all also proponents of flow in video games do not claim that you are in the state every second of play...

Now, for the discussion: am I the only one who has experienced flow from board gaming? If you have, what games did it for you? What other circumstances concurred to make the state possible?

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Jeff
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I find that the gaming people I hang out with, and I, have so many games that we hardly ever play any one particular game often. The unfortunate side effect of this is we tend to need to stop playing several times per game to reference the rules. This in turn takes me out of that state of "flow" pre se. It's really annoying in my opinion.

However, not that I thought about it in these terms at the time, but I have experienced this phenomenon. For example, when I first bought Pandemic. This was early in the hobbie for me. My brother and I played the game again and again. Probably 10 times in about 12 hours, and that was with a sleep period in there too. The game was so different from the standard games we were used to. We were working together! We were saving the world! (Sometimes). We couldn't get enough, and the time just disappeared.

I also get this feeling when I play 1812: The Invasion of Canada. I really enjoy history, in particular Canadian history. So, I become quite immersed in this game, which fills out the history part so well.

This is an interesting topic.
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Larry L
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I have experienced it a bit, but not as completely and consistently as playing a video game.
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I think the fact feedback is dependent on others in board games minutes this kind of experience compared to the consistent flow of digital media.
 
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darthain wrote:
I think the fact feedback is dependent on others in board games minutes this kind of experience compared to the consistent flow of digital media.


sure, it takes the right group to achieve the state, and it takes a game that does not involve down time. Also, there are solitaire board games...

also, coop board games where there is a lot of discussion (like Pandemic) or where you are always scrutinizing evryone (Resistance, One Night werewolf), or auction games, where there is very quick interaction and back and forth... All of these games tend to keep all engaged at all or most times. Maybe it's not by chance that i find Pandemic so flow-y...
 
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For thematic games, I feel like things that break me out of the theme, and make me think about it being a game would take me out of flow.

When playing a game of Eldritch Horror, when playing with other experience gamers familiar with the rules, the game was going so smoothly and the story was engaging, so we really got into it. It was hard to believe when we looked at the clock that 4 hours had passed (the game took another 2).


This can happen in non-thematic games as well. I feel all participants need to be familiar with the game so they can completely focus on their strategy as opposed to trying to remember and look up rules.
Usually flow is said to require cognitive engagement that utilizing your full capacity, but in a way that is not tiring/feels like work. I think this is why I could enter a flow state with a thinky-euro once I know the game. At first learning the rules is work and the game is above my level, but once I know the rules it is completely engaging, especially against good opponents.

With a group, though, I feel like it does depend on the attitude of others. If someone is constantly distracting everyone, it makes it difficult. If you want to reach flow in that case it might be better just to try to have a really good group conversation as opposed to playing a game. But for me, I would probably still choose the game.
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Marius van der Merwe
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Cognitive Flow is easily experienced and common in rock climbing (my other hobby besides board games). When it comes to board gaming I sometimes lose track of time and achieve a state of enhanced focus, but only while playing a complex game solitaire (e.g. Navajo Wars or Fire in the Lake). I think that with human opponents I don't reach the necessary comfort level and get too easily distracted by the human interaction involved.
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Chris Knight
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I think this is a pretty interesting question, if taken as a quest for an analogous experience to cognitive flow. But ultimately the idea of cognitive flow by definition seems antithetical to board games:

OP's article wrote:
While in these states, people experience:

1. Extreme focus on a task.
2. A sense of active control.
3. Merging of action and awareness.
4. Loss of self-awareness.
5. Distortion of the experience of time.
6. The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.


2-5 simply do not happen in board games. I never forget who I am and think I am the little cardboard standee searching for items at the gas station.

I am sure we have all wondered where the time went at the end of a gaming session, but that is not the same as a distortion of the experience of time.

Oh, I know, Loopin' Louie. I think one could experience cognitive flow while playing Loopin' Louie. But not Loopin' Chewie.
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To be honest, I find the definition in the article a bit cumbersome. Normally, I would associate the experience of "flow" in any task with a rather specific type of motoric activity. For example, in video games, flow starts when you're past "controlling" the game - when pressing buttons has become a somatic rather than a cognitive action.

That said, if I were to go by the article's definition (and only then), I would say that such a state of flow is easiest to achive in roleplaying games.
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Larry L
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Gee Whiz wrote:
I think this is a pretty interesting question, if taken as a quest for an analogous experience to cognitive flow. But ultimately the idea of cognitive flow by definition seems antithetical to board games:

Quote:
While in these states, people experience:

1. Extreme focus on a task.
2. A sense of active control.
3. Merging of action and awareness.
4. Loss of self-awareness.
5. Distortion of the experience of time.
6. The experience of the task being the only necessary justification for continuing it.


2-5 simply do not happen in board games. I never forget who I am and think I am the little cardboard standee searching for items at the gas station.

I am sure we have all wondered where the time went at the end of a gaming session, but that is not the same as a distortion of the experience of time.

Oh, I know, Loopin' Louie. I think one could experience cognitive flow while playing Loopin' Louie. But not Loopin' Chewie.


I don't think seeing yourself as another being like a little cardboard standee or a character on the screen is what is meant by loss of self-awareness--at least with what little I can gather from the article. Flow applies to sports as well as video games. I'm not sure why "where the time went" can't be a distortion of the experience of time either.

I have no clear idea what is meant by a sense of active control or merging action with awareness. Those do seem more physical/perceptual than what happens in a board game, but I'm not sure what they represent.
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RingelTree wrote:
I don't think seeing yourself as another being like a little cardboard standee or a character on the screen is what is meant by loss of self-awareness--at least with what little I can gather from the article.


I do. When I am playing a video game, I am the character on the screen. When I am playing a board game, I am not.

RingelTree wrote:
Flow applies to sports as well as video games. I'm not sure why "where the time went" can't be a distortion of the experience of time either.


Losing track of time or not being mindful of time is just a matter of not paying attention; You are simply not minding the clock. It is not an experience at all.

Distortion of time means time means being mindful of time, aware of yourself in time. Athletes "in the zone" talk about time slowing down--that fastball is suddenly easy to pick up, the players on the other team seem to stand still.
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Larry L
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Gee Whiz wrote:
RingelTree wrote:
I don't think seeing yourself as another being like a little cardboard standee or a character on the screen is what is meant by loss of self-awareness--at least with what little I can gather from the article.


I do. When I am playing a video game, I am the character on the screen. When I am playing a board game, I am not.


Okay, but that is not the only way to lose a sense of self. It can happen in games where there is no avatar-- no character on the screen. So becoming a standee isn't the only why to lose a sense of self in a game.

Quote:

RingelTree wrote:
Flow applies to sports as well as video games. I'm not sure why "where the time went" can't be a distortion of the experience of time either.


Losing track of time or not being mindful of time is just a matter of not paying attention; You are simply not minding the clock. It is not an experience at all.

Distortion of time means time means being mindful of time, aware of yourself in time. Athletes "in the zone" talk about time slowing down--that fastball is suddenly easy to pick up, the players on the other team seem to stand still.


Interesting. Yes, I can't imagine that happening in a board game!

But is that what they are talking about in the article? They seem to be talking about losing time.
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I ran into something similar to this when playing World in Flames at a convention setting. You really don't have anything else to do for days on end, and you begin to understand yourself as the leader of the country. You focus so much on the board and pieces that you know where they are, even when there are hundreds o them to keep track of. And you completely lose yourself for those couple (well, eight, really) days. I found that the thing that hampered it for me was not distraction but fatigue. I would start to see counters in my sleep, and just grow physically tired. But otherwise, it's a great way to spend a week of your life!
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Chris Knight
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RingelTree wrote:
But is that what they are talking about in the article? They seem to be talking about losing time.


Haha. I actually have no idea. I read the list, imagined myself playing a snowboarding game or a skateboarding game, came to some conclusions (that are of course correct), and started writing stuff...

But I just don't think being so engrossed in something that you lose track of time is that interesting--Time flies when you're having fun--Don't we always lose track of time when we're doing something interesting?
 
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RingelTree wrote:
Okay, but that is not the only way to lose a sense of self. It can happen in games where there is no avatar-- no character on the screen. So becoming a standee isn't the only why to lose a sense of self in a game.



Fair enough. Negotiation and social games are like this, right? The game itself as a game can even start to disappear.
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Gee Whiz wrote:
RingelTree wrote:
Okay, but that is not the only way to lose a sense of self. It can happen in games where there is no avatar-- no character on the screen. So becoming a standee isn't the only why to lose a sense of self in a game.



Fair enough. Negotiation and social games are like this, right? The game itself as a game can even start to disappear.


I might be starting to change my mind on this whole question...
 
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Marco Arnaudo
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RingelTree wrote:
Gee Whiz wrote:
RingelTree wrote:
I don't think seeing yourself as another being like a little cardboard standee or a character on the screen is what is meant by loss of self-awareness--at least with what little I can gather from the article.


I do. When I am playing a video game, I am the character on the screen. When I am playing a board game, I am not.


Okay, but that is not the only way to lose a sense of self. It can happen in games where there is no avatar-- no character on the screen. So becoming a standee isn't the only why to lose a sense of self in a game.



Also, board games can have amazingly detailed avatars. Ask anyone who has been developing a character in Shadows of Brimstone over several months, they'll tell you the bio of the character as if it was an extension of their own.
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What an interesting topic, I want to come back and read full thread, but I do want to add I think, related to flow state in gaming helps mediate pain. My guess is due to increased dopamine that comes from both flow state and solving problems.

I have severe chronic fibromyalgia pain and games can definitely take me away from my pain state. This also involves gateway theory of pain control, where you substitute a "larger" more "important" stimulus than the pain signal. That is one reason why say a heating pad works, your nerves are busy carrying heat signals so the pain signal is blocked.

I can be in huge pain before and after a game, but if it is a good, engrossing game w little downtime, my pain will lose its dominance. It's still there if my attention turns to it, or if it is too strong for distraction, or it a really uncomfortable chair

This is true for any flow state activity, so I try to engage in them as much as possible.

Does anyone else have experience with this or can add more technically to flesh out my theories?
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Daniel Blumentritt
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Quote:
I do. When I am playing a video game, I am the character on the screen. When I am playing a board game, I am not.


It can happen to me in board games too. It depends on the game - much like it does in computer games - it (usually) takes a certain type of game that encourages one to think of oneself as identifying with a character and a story. It also helps who I'm playing with - much more likely to experience this if I'm doing a cooperative game with a s.o., for example.
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Trent Boardgamer
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RingelTree wrote:
I have experienced it a bit, but not as completely and consistently as playing a video game.


Same.

Biggest reason for me is that board games tend to get more interrupted. In video games you are rarely waiting on one absent player for the game to keep flowing.

Plus I'm normally the rules guy for most of the board games so unless all the other players know the game well the rules focus breaks the flow required.
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marnaudo wrote:
I am a little surprised that this concept does not appear to have been applied to board games - which I can tell you from experience sure can put ME in a state of flow. Battlestar Galactica, Arkham Horror, Julius Caesar, Shogun, and too many others to recount, certainly have put me in a state of flow many times - not for the entire game maybe, but enough for me to remember the experience as enormously pleasant. And after all also proponents of flow in video games do not claim that you are in the state every second of play...

Now, for the discussion: am I the only one who has experienced flow from board gaming? If you have, what games did it for you? What other circumstances concurred to make the state possible?

Sure, it seems pretty common to me. I'm not sure why there might be more articles about it in the context of video games than in board games other than that there is simply more money and attention given to video games.
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Alvaro Lerma
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Very interesting topic and discussion! Thanks for sharing.

For me, it's very more likely to happen when theme and mechanics work together smoothly.
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Jeff Warrender
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As others have noted, flow can be experienced as a sense of enhanced focus and efficiency, and the punctuated nature of turn-based games can make this difficult to achieve. Real-time games might deliver this experience more reliably.

I will say that game design may lend itself more naturally to this, but mostly in the brainstorming/idea generation phase, probably not so much in the iterating-through-playtests phase.
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I've absolutely experienced this - but it is a fairly rare thing dependent, I suspect, on both the depth of the game and my level of experience with it. Just yesterday I experienced this "flow" in a two player game of Le Havre, my fifth play of the game. I was so completely immersed in the game and so extremely focussed, that I forgot that the demon nicotine runs my life. The game ran for what may have been close to two hours (though it's difficult to say, given that there was a definite distortion of time) and though nicotine usually demands my attention every 45 minutes at the very least, I actually forgot to take a smoke break. Which is huge.

That state of flow - the extreme focus, active control, loss of self-awareness - is one of my favourite things about board gaming, and for me it is what initially drew me into this hobby.

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Thanks for posting this, Marco. I've bookmarked that article as it resonated with me. I've lately been feeling bored by a lot (not all) of euros that I play, and I think part of the reason why is a lack of Flow. It goes back to the idea that it's not just what you put in a game that makes it great but what you strip out.
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