Immersion and Flow (Part 1): How flow is activated and Tetris makes good use of it

Immersion and Flow (Part 1): How flow is activated and Tetris makes good use of it


Being immersed in a game, or experiencing a state of flow. This is often what makes or breaks a game when you sit down to play it. If the game achieves neither of the two it isn’t a good sign. At least one of these often prove necessary in order to engage a person for longer periods of time.

This is going to be a 2-part article, where Part 1 will focus mainly on the distinction between flow and immersive experiences and how these play a role in day-to-day life and in games.

In our everyday lives we are all terribly inefficient in our use of language. We are often imprecise in the words we use, happily tossing two or three different terms into the same context which can result in misunderstandings, such as people thinking all of these terms must then more or less convey the same meaning.

This seems to be what has happened when gamers use experiences of immersion and flow interchangeably.

Put simply flow happens when we are actively doing something that engages all of our attention and we are “in the zone” – not paying anything else heed. Immersion on the other hand relates to going on a journey in our minds to another place. We “adopt” a different reality than our own and accept this realities representational space.

I other words both flow and immersion in part make us forget our surroundings, (which may very well be the reason behind the mix-up of the two) but they do so through two very different mechanisms. The two can individually affect us in different situations, but it is also possible to experience them at the same time.

Now, for the remainder of this post I will focus on flow, the conditions under which it arises, and how this all comes to play in video games.

The term Flow was coined in 1990 by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a way of describing the mental state of being “in the zone”. He has since in cooperation with Nakamura identified six factors that come into play when experiencing flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

The sense of flow is achieved in the event of all the above occurring at once.

Achieving this is a goal for many a self-improvement guru nowadays, but has also been a long lasting human pursuit across cultures. Examples of working with focus and achieving flow is seen throughout history, examples being elements in meditation, texts describing Michelangelo’s tireless work on the Sistine chapel, or Bruce Lee’s descriptions on how he worked and trained (think water reference).

Take into account that self-improvement schemes and positive psychology approaches to life are hugely popular in current times it is unsurprising that so much research is going into finding out how we most effectively activate the state of flow.

For those of you who may be curious to know what goes on in our brains during this state I will just shortly mention that neuroscientists have discovered that the area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex partly shuts down when people undergo flow (Psychologytoday). And what does that mean? Well, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is closely connected to our self-awareness i.e. that little voice in your head that keeps analyzing your actions as they take place. So, when this part is not as active it leaves us free to do things more effectively without retrospective reflection.

Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex

RIGHT, as a reader of this post I now have a request. It is time for a break you see! And I would ask you to click the link below and play a few games of Tetris. Thanks!

(Oh and please remember to set the difficulty according to skill level. I myself have found out starting at 5 works well. Get to enjoy the game a bit before I lose track of all those blocks raining down. Also SOUND is a part of the game, so please turn on the audio)

As you may have guessed, my question now is, did you experience a flow whilst playing? Hopefully you did, at least for a short while. It happened to me when playing it (and I just wanted to make sure it worked).

There are certain conditions that need to be facilitated in order for us to attain the state of flow. Owen Schaffer drafted this list of 7 conditions in 2013:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

The list from earlier described the partial elements of what one is experiencing during flow, this one as said looks at what conditions must be met in order to enter the state in the first place. In everyday life it is rare that all of the above conditions are fulfilled at the same time when we do a task, whether it is study related, work related or something else. But games on the other hand specialize in in checking off every single of the above conditions when engaging with us.

Tetris, being such a simple game, serves as a great example.
(1) Even if you don’t know the game beforehand you quickly figure out that you are supposed to drop the Tetris blocks in such a way that they form unbroken lines horizontally, which then clears the line(s). (2) The controls are simple and intuitive, the four arrow buttons, and in no time we are playing the game without consciously having to think about which button we need to press. (3) Feedback is important when it comes to sustaining our attention, and it is therefore offered through a couple of different methods. When we clear a line our score increases, and its all about that score. At the same time we get the visual feedback in the way in which the blocks disappear as we complete a line. This is supported by the audio feedback offering a distinct noise every time we clear a line, which quickly becomes a sound the brain associates with doing well. (4, 5 & 6) Challenge level is important, and an essential part of any video game. In Tetris this is built up in a simple manner. The player can chose to start on any level from 1 to 10, and then the level slowly increases as the game progresses. The level difficulty only affects a single factor, the speed in which the blocks fall, which requires the player to react increasingly faster. In general player skill will increase the more time a person spends on the game. (7) Freedom from distractions is one of the most difficult conditions when solving tasks usually. Tetris on the other hand, as with most games, is designed to require your full attention by effectively facilitating all the other conditions, and in effect does not leave space for distractions.

This was just a small breakdown of how even a simple game like Tetris is able to create a state of flow. Games are great at this because of their attention demanding nature.

That will be all for Part 1. Part 2 will take a closer look at what immersion is and how it manifests in games. This will come online on Wednesday.

Please leave any comments you may have below – I would love to hear what you think about this post, or maybe some of your personal experiences with flow in games.

Take Care!



Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.

Kotler, Stephen. Psychology Today. Flow States and Creativity: Can you train people to be more creative? – DOA 29/03/2015

Nakamura, J.; Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2001. Flow Theory and Research. In C. R. Snyder Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez. Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–206.

Schaffer, Owen. 2013. Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International. Human Factors International.

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