Going With the Flow: Can Sound Design Keep Players Immersed in Video Games

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John McNamara, Claire Arthur

The aim of this research was to better understand how a video game’s soundtrack can help a player get into a state of “flow” as they play. “Flow” is a psychological state described as an “optimal experience”, a sensation of being “in-the-zone” or completely absorbed within a task on activity. When people are in this state, the outside world seems to fade away, actions become automatic, and even a person’s perception of time may change. People can experience flow during any activity that they find intrinsically pleasurable, including playing music, exercising, working, cooking, or playing games. In fact, video-game fans will often cite a game’s soundtrack or sound-design as a key component for drawing them into the experience and helping them achieve this flow state. We hope to better understand what features of the music are most important when achieving this. 

Additionally, an often-cited requirement for entering a flow state is the presence of clear goals. According to this notion, a person must have a clear objective or target to aim toward which to focus their efforts in order to get “in the zone.” As such, early flow researchers claimed that games with clear goals such as tennis, chess, or backgammon are most likely to facilitate flow. However, there are many successful video games such as Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and The Sims, whose core appeal is a distinct LACK of clear goals. The people who enjoy these games play them because they have the freedom to explore the game world, discover things on their own, and execute their own plans. As a result, we also sought to better understand the effect of giving the player an explicit goal may have on their ability to achieve flow. 

For our experiment, we built a short, Tomb-Raider style game using the Unity Game Engine and assets from the Unity 3D game kit. The game consisted of four areas, each with their own background musical tracks: a central hub, a combat challenge, a puzzle challenge, and a platforming challenge. We explored two musical independent variables in our study: loop length and transition type. When participants booted up the game, the background music in each area would either have incredibly short (~15 seconds) or incredibly long (~2 ½ minutes) loops. Additionally, when players moved from one area to the next, the music would either crossfade seamlessly from one track to the next, or there would be a short silence between tracks. Furthermore, to test the effect of explicit goals, players were either given specific instructions to complete the three challenges or a vague prompt to explore the world. After playing for 20 minutes, players were directed to an online survey where they estimated their total play time and answered two questionnaires designed to measure flow: the Short Flow State Scale (SFSS)and the Game Experience Questionnaire (GEQ). We hypothesized that players would report lower estimated play times and higher average flow scores in the long loop, silence, and non-goal directed conditions. 

While we did not find many statistically significant results, we did observe a lot of interesting trends. For instance, players tended to underestimate their total play time when they heard long loops but overestimated it when given short musical loops. If we assume that players perceive time to be moving more quickly when they are enjoying themselves, this would mean that the short loops would have caused the players to enjoy the game less, a notion that is supported by participant comments. Additionally, players who heard silence in-between different musical tracks reported higher average SFSS scores than those who heard cross-fade transitions. We’re excited to be conducting additional research to explore these trends in more detail!