Games That Make Us Happier

Takeaway: Immersive games that make us feel physically present in a virtual experience can lead to a state of mind called “flow,” which is linked to happiness and life satisfaction.

What’s all the fuss about “presence” in games (which, if you haven’t read my other posts, is the feeling of actually being there in a virtual world)? It’s become the holy grail of both gamers and game developers. Discussions about presence in games have become quite popular of late, given all the interest in virtual reality and the ability of new platforms to completely absorb and focus our attention to a crazy extent.

One reason achieving a sense of presence is so important is that it may lead to a state of mind colloquially called “being in the zone” or “flow.” Flow is when we become immersed, energized and fully focused in an activity that is pleasurable. We’re usually doing something that provides frequent feedback and is challenging but not overly difficult. We lose sense of time, “living in the moment,” and our self-conscious awareness and monitoring goes out the window. We may even ignore physical needs like hunger! Flow state can be reached in many ways, especially when our skills are being engaged — playing sports, writing a story, programming computer software, playing bridge, reading — but games produce a particularly conducive environment for flow when a sense of presence is high.

For years, when we asked our Walmart customers why they play Legacy’s hidden object games, we would get the same response. “I want to relax, think about nothing, escape from my worries.” Little did I know, these customers were probably describing their flow state. Psychologists now believe that attaining flow, particularly because it comes about as a result of focused activity, is a crucial component of lifelong happiness.

A screenshot from the hidden object game, Criminal Minds, distributed by Legacy at Walmart

A screenshot from the hidden object game, Criminal Minds, distributed by Legacy at Walmart

In previous blogs on the topic of presence, I reviewed available research on how to influence presence and why people vary in their feelings of presence. Increasing the sense of presence in games turns out to be THE critical factor in achieving a flow state. Now, especially with the advent of virtual reality, game designers have the opportunity to turn us all into flow junkies.

Here’s a quick model summarizing my blogs on the topic of presence, and all the ways it is influenced and influences us.