The Structure and Style of Games and Flow

Kevin Votaw
3 min readMay 23, 2022
Photo by Eduardo Balderas on Unsplash

Happiness research reveals, just as the previous paradox of failure insinuated, we are at our best not having fun or in leisure, but when our skills are challenged.

“We have been conditioned to believe that the wrong things will make us lastingly happy,” Sonja Lyuomirsky, author of The How of Happiness says (63).

Put another way, “We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not” (64)

What does make us happy is balance — neither too hard or too easy — which puts us into flow. Players’ engagement is at its highest not when they could not complete the game or completed the game without losing lives, but when they completed the game and lost some lives (65–66). This distinction can be seen below (67):

Player rating of game as function of performance.

Called the challenge/skills ratio, zone of proximal development, or originally the Yerkes-Dodson effect, flow shows up within the channel of optimal challenge and skills (68–70).

Does challenge and skills need to be maxed out to achieve maximum flow within the flow channel?

Does it follow a smooth climb through challenge and skills?

In fact, it does not.

Noah Falstein, compared to Csiksentmihalyi, shows that variance and novelty, or the irregular oscillation between anxiety and boredom within the flow channel piques gamers’ engagement the most — too little, too much, and just right (71):


Falstein —

This dynamic game balancing is pivotal.

Though advances in flow science do not recommend drawing one element of flow out in isolation, monitoring and adjusting this particular trigger within the structure could lead to greater and/or more reliable access to flow.

Deliberately varying the challenge and skills as Falstein’s model suggests can give coaches the freedom and space to find that 85% sweet spot without making the perfect drill at the perfect level of challenge (73).

The inability to hit upon flow initially and the irregular increase in difficulty captures engagement the most, and the ability to dial the challenge/skills ratio up and down is the ultimate key.

With flow structured like a game and challenge/skills varied and monitored, coaches have a potentially endless list of possibilities for games and drills, provided they add the style of the other flow triggers environmentally and socially, creatively and ferociously.

For flow to show up, at least six or seven of the identified pre-conditions must be present. (74)

Thus, a structure and style emerge:

Structure (4) —

  • Goal
  • Rules
  • Feedback System
  • Voluntary participation (autonomy)

X (1) —

  • Challenge/skills ratio

Style (1–2+) —

  • Environmental (5)
  • Social (10)
  • Creative (1)
  • Ferocity (4)

For the sake of the graph, the potential stylistic triggers listed include:

  • Environmental: risk, novelty, complexity, unpredictability, deep embodiment
  • Social: complete concentration, shared goals, shared risk, yes and…, close listening, autonomy/sense of control, blending egos, familiarity, equal participation, open communication
  • Creative: pattern recognition/risk taking (with creation)
  • Ferocity: passion, purpose, mastery, curiosity

Future research and training is needed to determine whether the application of this high performance toolkit has a significant impact on the athletic experience of an athlete.

Does engagement, intrinsic motivation, amount of flow, and skill development increase when coaches craft drills and practices, even games, in this way?

The principles of autotelic athletics, where experience is structured as a game and styled with the flow triggers, would appear to suggest so.

References to the above can be found here.



Kevin Votaw

Flow Coach. Applying flow in school, sports, and life: ❌ Flow x Fiero ♦️North of Happy ⚾ The Pitching DJ 🧠