Flow and Gaming Performance

Much has been written about performing at your best when in flow state, or ‘the zone’. Whether it is sport, work, art, gaming or any other performance driven pursuit, flow has been considered the ideal mindset since it was first documented in 1975.

Photo by Tobias Carlsson on Unsplash

What is Flow?

The simplest way to describe flow is ‘energised focus’. It is the act of losing yourself in your activity. Where you are completely absorbed by what you are doing, you lose track of time, and your actions feel unconscious.

Discussion around flow can be subjective based on the individual experience, but there has also been research on the physiology of flow. This research has shown increased alpha brain wave activity when subjects are in a flow state (Katahira, 2018 and Knierim, 2019). Further, task performance is optimal when alpha activity is increased (Jann, 2010).

Flow and Gaming

So how does this all relate to gaming?

That is the question we set out to answer. We had 16 gamers play a total of 1634 games of League of Legends, all while wearing EEG headsets. The gamers were ranked between Bronze and Diamond, meaning they included players that were relatively new to the game, right through to those that had been playing for years.

For the purposes of this research, we are going to define Flow as MaddCog’s equation for interpreting alpha activity from the EEG.

Before discussing the results, it is important to consider all the factors that could impact performance in a team-based game like League of Legends. The ability of your teammates, your skill level, your opponents, your team’s strategy etc. Considering this, we would assume that mental performance has a minimal effect on overall game outcome, so we were surprised when the data showed that it accounted for 10% of the variation in game performance for our subjects. Even more interesting was this variation ranged from 0% for some new, low skilled players, right up to 20% for some experienced players.

When this was broken down further, it was Flow that proved to be the most important attribute for most of the players. Flow alone accounted for 3% of the variance in game performance, with this as high as 9% for some experienced players.

Just think about that for a second. Of all the things that determine how well you play in a given game, Flow can account for up to 9%.

Let's put this in more meaningful terms, when Flow was high, these experienced players won 65% of their games, while only winning 36% of their games when it was low. The difference in win rate across all players was still 13% higher when Flow was high. Imagine being able to win 13% more of your games, just because you were in a Flow state. These results are shown in the graph below and highlight the value of Flow for the competitive gamer.

Average win rate for all League of Legends players based on their Flow state for that game.

Getting into a Flow state

Based on the strength of these results, you want to get into this flow state as often as possible. This begs the logical question ‘how do I achieve a flow state?’

It is often stated that flow is best achieved when your skills match the difficulty of what you are undertaking. For example, in gaming, playing a lower-level opponent may get boring, while a competing against a higher-level opponent may cause anxiety and frustration. However, if you are matched against an opponent of similar level, you have the opportunity to reach the ideal mental state.

Published research has proposed various approaches, mostly centred around skill level, task difficulty, not getting distracted, having goals, and seeing progress. However, this feels a little weak as these conditions can be frequently met without flow state and high performance being achieved.

Unfortunately, there are no clear answers at this stage, but it is research we are working on given the value it brings. Our research has already found that playing in a mentally fatigued state means you are less likely to get into flow and perform well. We will keep you posted as other meaningful outcomes are unearthed.

In the meantime, MaddCog has shown that flow is beneficial for gaming performance, especially for experienced competitive gamers. Flow can also be measured using consumer grade sensors, which becomes enlightening in understanding the reasons for your performance.

References

Jann K, Koenig T, Dierks T, Boesch C, and Federspiel A. 2010, ‘Association of individual resting state EEG alpha frequency and cerebral blood flow’, NeuroImage, Volume 51, Issue 1.

Katahira K, Yamazaki Y, Yamaoka C, Ozaki H, Nakagawa S, and Nagata N. 2018, ‘EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic Task’, Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 9.

Knierim M, Nadj M, and Weinhardt C. 2019, ‘Flow and Optimal Difficulty in the Portable EEG: On the Potentiality of using Personalized Frequency Ranges for State Detection’. 3rd International Conference on Computer-Human Interaction Research and Applications, 2019.

Performance Scientist at MaddCog (www.maddcog.com)