Cognitive Perspective of Flow Theory and Video Games

Icon of game consul

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory (1990) is based on several interrelated psychological constructs: ability, attitude, cognition, emotion, motivation, and personality. When perfectly combined in a task, they catapult a person into a state of flow commonly known as being in the zone. Csikszentmilhalyi refers to this as an optimal experience. He found that people around the world had shared descriptions for flow such as the joy it yields, episodes of unfettered concentration, suspension of time, and the spontaneous automaticity during an experience. Flow occurs differently for different people. For example, individuals who aren’t good at playing games, or find the game uninteresting, wouldn’t experience flow during gameplay.

As an instructional designer, I want to create optimal learning experiences. Flow theory has components similar to those used for effective instruction based on cognitivism. For instance, Sweller’s cognitive load theory (1998) recommends reducing distractions (extraneous elements) and delivering germane and intrinsic elements of instruction in manageable chunks. This correlates to the component of enjoyment in flow theory in that a person can only fully enjoy a task if they’re capable of completing it. Flow theory has eight main components that engender enjoyment: manageable tasks, deep concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, learner autonomy, metamorphosis of self, and suspension of time. These components parallel best practices for instruction.

To make learning more enjoyable, I’d apply Miller’s seven-plus-or-minus-two principle (1956) regarding the limitations surrounding the amount of input that can be remembered at any given time. Adherence to Miller’s principle will make a task more manageable. Additionally, I’d use Gagne’s (1985) nine events of learning to establish the optimal cognitive conditions for effective learning to occur. Three of Gagne’s events (state objective, provide feedback, and provide practice) closely correlate with the enjoyment phenomena of flow theory (task has clear goals, task provides immediate feedback, and sense of control). Furthermore, the aspects of clear goals and feedback also correlate to self-regulation of learning. Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies. The selection of important information aids deep concentration for possible enjoyment of an optimal experience.

A vehicle for cognitive learning experiences with flow potential would be well-designed educational games. Elements of good game design include goal-oriented, stimulating, active learning that is anchored in instruction (Shute, Reiber, & Van Eck, 2012). While playful (fun) learning has similar elements, the key difference is active learning, as many playful activities passively follow the teacher’s directives. Another difference is the challenge aspect of gaming that adapts to the learners’ abilities, whereas playful learning is freeform. A challenge provides learners with intrinsic motivation and the pathway to achieve learner autonomy to make their own way through the world. This is different from traditional learning activities that are teacher directed. Chatti, Jarke, and Specht (2010) described this as a knowledge push, whereas knowledge-pull is akin to gaming where the learner gravitates toward knowledge.

Videogames, in particular, have similar characteristics for creating a context for flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge are the characteristics necessary for a unified flow experience. In my opinion, these are the flow characteristics that can be found in gameplay: 1) clarity with explicit gaming context, rules, feedback, and goals, 2) centering with narrative providing storyline, 3) choice with multilevels of play, numerous episodes, variety of characters and actions, and guilds, 4) commitment via resets (do-overs) and new virtual identity, and 5) challenge via incremental task difficulty and reward system. The challenge for instructional designers is to determine how to use the potentiality of videogames to engender flow for educational purposes. Based on the aforementioned research on cognitive learning best practices and flow theory, we have the theoretical basis to move forward.

Sandra Rogers


Chatti, M. A., Jarke, M., & Specht, M. (2010). The 3P learning model. Educational Technology and Society, 13(4), 74-85.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus-or-minus two: Some limits on our capacity
for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Shute, V. J., Rieber, L. P., & Van Eck, R. (2012).   Games…and…Learning. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey   (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and   technology (pp. 321-332). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill   Prentice Hall.

Sweller, J., Van Merriënboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10(3), 251–296. doi:10.1023/A:1022193728205

Understanding A Learner’s Misunderstanding

Fish and fish-like animals and people
Fish is Fish, written & illustrated by Leo Lionni (1970); Published by Penguin Random House


In Fish is Fish ©, Lionni tells the story of two friends, a fish and a tadpole, who grow up together in a pond. When the tadpole becomes a frog, he’s able to hop out of the pond and discover land.  Upon return, he describes to the fish the wondrous things he has seen. The fish imagines these things based on his prior knowledge and understanding of the world.  Hence, birds are fish with wings, cows are fish with udders, and people are fish in clothing, and so forth. With an inability to imagine a very different reality, the fish simply superimposes the new on the old.

This story illustrates the impact of a learner’s prior knowledge on new information. Generally, the learner is unaware of their misunderstandings. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) found a solid research base to support tapping into a learner’s prior knowledge. Learners’ preconceived notions remain unchanged if their initial understanding is not engaged by the instructor.  In fact, even if students learn new information about a concept for a test, they may still revert to their original understanding when transferring it to real world applications. For example, in a 1983 study by Wandersee, students prior knowledge on animal food needs biased their understanding of the primary source of food in green plants.  Elementary and college students held the misconception that soil was the plants’ food even though many had received instruction on photosynthesis. Bransford et al. suggested that educators find ways to make a learner’s thinking visible in order to address these misconceptions.

Second, a learner’s belief system is tied to their experiences and culture. Sometimes in order to make sense of something new, one needs to see it associated to something known within their culture. Bransford et al. give the example of storytelling, which is an important component of some cultures. This can be associated with the language arts curriculum as a skill. An educator needs to have an understanding of the learners’ cultural background to aid sense-making. Generally, second language educators understand the importance of valuing a learner’s cultural background. Their specific training on the nature of language (linguistics) describes how culture is inextricably tied to language. Therefore, it’s important to use many examples and nonexamples in teaching new concepts. These should be open for discussion to allow learners to make connections to their understandings. In this way, the student introduces their own culture versus the good-willed but misinformed teachers’ understanding of culture not her own.

Third, it’s important to understand the economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethno-cultural, and social environmental barriers to learning new concepts. In my opinion, the fish-is-fish phenomenon occurs with learners whose systems include one or a combination of the following: monolingualism, racial homogeneity, geographic isolation, closed systems (those that exist without need from outside systems), economic hardships, and political isolation. This list is only cursory.

I  encountered various environmental barriers when using food to discuss nutrition in the elementary classroom in East Los Angeles. A school grant provided fresh fruits and vegetables with nutrition lessons weekly to a classroom. The day I introduced blueberries became more of a discussion on the fruit than on its nutritional values. The high cost of this fruit, coupled with it not being a part of the ethnic foods generally sold or purchased in the area, made blueberries an oddity. As one can imagine, students were more interested in tasting it than hearing about it. How could I appropriately describe the taste of a blueberry to someone who has never eaten one? The nutrition program’s lesson time frame for eating the fruit was generally on day three; of course, I didn’t stick to the plan. However, in some instances, the fruit was shipped still green, so that it would ripen according to the right day of the lesson plan.


Your blogger,

Sandra Rogers

P.S. I received permission from Random House to use this copyrighted illustration for this single blog post!

Variables Affecting Learning (Updated Model)

Gagne’s Format for Designing Effective Training

Even after his death, Robert Mills Gagné continues to be one of the most influential contributors to instructional design.  His work with the US Army Air Corps  was instrumental in aiding the military during World War II to screen aviation recruits effectively and efficiently. This work led to the first edition of The Conditions of Learning in 1965, of which he would revise five times throughout his career. In this seminal book that combined behavioral and cognitive psychology, information processing model, and the general systems theory, Gagné provided a format for designing effective training by correlating internal cognitive processes with that of external instructional activities.  Moreover, Gagné proposed three new aspects to learning: conditions, domains, and instructional events.

His conditions of learning theory identified five major categories of learning, their correlating internal learning conditions, and nine events of instruction to address them. Gagné’s theory is based on the need to align the various types of learning with instructional events and conditions for acquisition of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other learner characteristics.  His quest was to facilitate learning by analyzing the act of learning itself. For example, Gagné developed a learning hierarchy to address complex intellectual skills, in which he proposed which events should be addressed first before proceeding to the next—a sequence of instruction. He believed that simpler tasks, prerequisite skills, should be learned before advancing to more complex ones. Through his systematic analysis of instruction, he started with the overarching aspect of learning domains.

Gagné categorized learning into five learning outcomes: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes.  Verbal information refers to data we store in our memory and recall as needed.  Intellectual skills refer to intelligence, achievement, and problem solving abilities that make us competent.  Cognitive strategies are defined as self-monitoring such as metacognition and strategizing to help us learn, think, and remember. Motor skills refer to learning capabilities that involve the mind and body. Attitudes are personal attributes and characteristics that affect how one learns, as well as their understanding of epistemology.  Clearly, each of these types of learning produce different human performance outcomes; therefore, Gagné studied the behavioral and cognitive conditions for each category that led to a learning event.

Gagné’s nine events of learning provided a process for designing instruction; one that is steeped in behavioral learning theories such as providing learners with objectives, learner expectations, cueing with a stimulus (gain attention), as well as positive reinforcement (feedback). However, it also included cognitive learning processes such as scaffolding (learning guidance), enhancing retention and transfer, and the overall fact that he was correlating internal mental processes with external learning events.  The nine events of learning are as follows: gain attention, inform learners of objectives, stimulate recall of prior learning, present the content, provide learning guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance, and enhance retention and transfer to the task.

In conclusion,  his quest was to facilitate learning by systematically analyzing the act of learning itself. Gagné’s instructional events have been widely adopted for instructional design purposes in multiple disciplines.  For example, K-12 school systems utilize his instructional events as a framework for lesson planning and evaluation.  In addition, the military, who was first influenced by Gagné’s work during WWII, continues to utilize his conditions of learning theory to produce effective training.  Nowadays, his nine events of learning are ubiquitous in the field of instructional design.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.