Halo 4 and Flow


November 19, 2012 by sczaja200


Stephen Czaja

Halo 4 is a first-person futuristic shooter developed by 343 Industries for the Xbox 360. Released on November 6, 2012, the game is the eighth installment in the critically-acclaimed Halo franchise. There are many game modes that can be played in Halo 4, including a campaign designed for either a single player or two players working cooperatively, as well as a variety of online and offline multiplayer scenarios. During our lab we played about forty-five minutes of the co-op campaign where we received an introduction to the game’s story. Taking place four years after the events of Halo 3, protagonist Master Chief, defender and savior of the human race, is awoken from a cryogenic slumber to begin a new confrontation against a never-before-seen alien race called the Prometheans.

Much can be said to relate Halo 4 to our recent class discussions. For example, on the topic of the first-person perspective provided by FPS games, we could discuss the effectiveness of the heads up display (HUD) and curved glass representation that is always displayed on the screen in providing both helpful data (health, ammo and map) and diegetic immersion (simulation of the glass visor that sits in front of the protagonist’s face) to the player (see screenshots below, which show both sides of the mask). While the topic of immersion is going to play an important role in the following discussion, what I am going to focus on here instead, however, is the more general idea of flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of concentration and satisfaction where time is transformed and a loss of self is experienced during an activity. I think this more or less describes the experience well for me (although I would suggest that the phenomenon might differ from person to person). In the case of video games, flow appears to come from either practice, a state of immersion, or both. Practice leads to flow when the player has already experienced a certain section of the game before so they are prepared for the events that are about to happen. Immersion causes flow when a game allows such a connection to occur between player and action on the screen so that their level of focus is high and their ability to react to new obstacles and move through a gamespace is heightened. Sometimes the two come together, and this is when highly competitive and efficient play occurs.

Reflecting on my brief experience playing Halo 4, I can say that each of the aforementioned events happened to me, and in some brief moments both occurred at the same time. There were times in the game when I felt very little flow and no immersion in the game, however. Such events occurred when I did not know where to travel next in the gameworld or when I was having difficulty with the controls. Such is the challenge with which video game designers are faced. The game’s environment and controls need to have complexity so interacting with them does not become boring, but these two elements cannot be confusing and subsequently disruptive to flow. For me, I achieve a sense of flow more readily when playing against individuals online in first-person shooter games, rather than in a single player campaign mode. This happens for two reasons.

The first reason is that I rarely play through single-player modes more than once so I do not have knowledge of the world prior to playing, whereas I will often play on the same multiplayer maps many, many times and eventually memorize key landmarks. Possessing knowledge about, for instance, the location of places in which cover can be achieved or choke points/bottlenecks where combat is likely to occur is integral for my ability to flow while gaming. In the video “Making Halo 4: Infinity Multiplayer”, this idea is supported. “Whenever we [design a new multiplayer level], we need to concentrate on a few key things. One is that there are distinct landmarks everywhere you look so you can orientate yourself and never get lost while you’re playing,” says Kynan Pearson, Lead Multiplayer Level Designer for Halo 4. Such a focus on providing landmarks shows that the designers of the game were concerned with designing maps that facilitate flow.

The second reason is that competitive play increases my ability to become immersed with the action that is happening on the screen. While playing the single player mode with the class, interacting with the game almost seemed like a chore. I simply wanted to get to the next part of the game so we could see more of the story. Because of this focus, getting lost and dying became incredibly frustrating because they acted as barriers to the rest of the narrative content. Playing against other people, however, makes every action I take more purposeful to me. There is a scoreboard, a kill/death ratio, and other players with which to compare and evaluate my performance. Sometimes graphics and gameplay enhance the level of immersion individuals achieve while playing video games, but for me the element of competition immerses me the most.

Before this class I did not have a name for the state I was achieving while performing near my fullest potential in the activities of my life, such as competing in sports, writing papers, or playing video games. Now I know that the state of mind I so desperately crave can be called flow. By placing an entire world and experience literally in front of an individual’s face and at their fingertips, I think so many people enjoy video games because these games facilitate flow better than other activities that exist in life. Flow almost appears to be a kind of transcendence into an quasi-omnipotent state, and the god-like control video game players can possess over a given virtual situation supports the appearance of such a state.


Works Cited

“Making Halo 4: Infinity Multiplayer”

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Image #2


5 thoughts on “Halo 4 and Flow

  1. rcthames says:

    Interesting reflection of flow in Halo 4. I think you’re on the right track with thinking through what flow is subjectively. It was interesting to me that you found more flow in multiplayer competition. Do you feel multiplayer competition is more challenging and allows you to progressively find more mastery in the play? You might be interested in another aspect of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, which is a revision of his original descriptions. He found that flow was greatest when perceived challenge was high but equal to perceived skill level. I originally looked at how some games designed this progression, but after reading your essay, I find it interesting to think about this when applied to multiplayer.

    • sczaja200 says:

      Thanks for the comments! I was hoping to get your input since you know this subject so well. To answer your question, multiplayer is not always more challenging than single player, but attaining mastery in online play does happen progressively and is ultimately more satisfying to me because of that competitive component. Thinking about the revision you mention, it seems appropriate and explains the pleasure that is received from flow. I don’t think many people feel very satisfied or immersed in games that they either (a) believe are incredibly easy or (b) finds themselves unskilled at.

  2. swrig22 says:

    I think what you say about challenge being needed for flow to really occur is dead-on, especially in shooters. However, there are a lot of other factors that contribute to the flow state, and I think a lot of them are hard to describe without getting into the subjective details of the game itself. For one thing, though I haven’t played Halo 4, I personally have never really felt the kind of flow from any of the Halo games I have been able to get my hands on, mostly due to the floaty jumping and lack of weight behind the firearms. I just can’t get “into” a game where half of the weapons make pew-pew sound effects and most enemies take five or six headshots to kill. I’m sure this sounds like a rather personalized, maybe even pedantic complaint; however, it comes with the territory. To me, flow is a subjective state that is hard to obtain and even harder to describe, and different games seem to cause it for different people. Personally, I get the most immersed in games that have relatable characters and well-done stories, as well as puzzle game mechanics, but I think the majority of gamers don’t share my tendencies toward these.

    • rcthames says:

      Keep in mind that Flow and enjoyment, while they can and often do overlap, are not the same thing. That alone doesn’t invalidate your argument, however. I also have trouble getting into Halo games for some of the same reasons you are describing. I have struggled (and I believe Csikszentmihalyi has as well) with the seemingly subject nature of Flow. Everyone seems to feel it doing different activities, yet for the most part they describe the feeling the same way, with the same factors.

      I think perhaps that if we broadened a discussion of “skills” to also include something like media literacy, in this case how comfortable we are and how intuitively we process certain conventions, there might be something to salvage there. Flow is very much a state of non-reflection, and your critiques are very much things that would cause reflection while playing. Having certain elements or conventions of the activity be effectively invisible (whether that be through practice or through acceptance of the conventions) seems necessary for Flow to occur.

      On that note, your list of game preferences–relatable characters, well-done stories, and even some puzzle mechanics–are all things that very much involve reflection and thus would go against a Flow state to begin with. That is not to say that games can’t have both, but I don’t think they have both within the same sections of a game. Flow is not constant, but periodic, and it seems from my own research in the matter that elements of story and such (if done well) may serve to punctuate and guide multiple separate Flow states. That said, I don’t think Flow is the only or even the supreme pleasure to be found in activities, and it seems perfectly acceptable to think that some people would not pursue such a state of non-reflection.

      • rcthames says:

        By the way, I realize that some aspects of “media literacy” include encouraging people to reflect on conventions, so maybe not that. I don’t know quite what to call what I was talking about there.

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