For User Engagement, Forget Flow. It’s All About Fiero

By: Sam Liberty

If you design user experience or study play in any form, most likely you’ve heard of flow. This is the psychology term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his groundbreaking work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” And if you’re a game designer, chances are you see the flow state as somewhere between the Rosetta Stone, The Holy Grail, and a hit of LSD. Flow is it.

Let’s quickly define it:

In Cziksentmihalyi’s words, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Cskikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.4)

Awesome! How do we get there?

He identifies a number of different elements involved in achieving flow. Here are the most important ones for actually creating the state:

  • Clear Goals
  • Feedback
  • Balance between challenges and skills (bold mine)
  • No or low stakes for failure

It’s pretty clear how the flow state fits into game design, but it’s not only found here. Many of the interviews that form the foundation of the theory were with yachters, mountain climbers, and skilled experts in their crafts. This feeling is so incredibly powerful, it’s no wonder designers try hard to engineer it. If you’re a game designer, this is challenging. If you’re designing an app or a product it’s damn-near impossible.

Let’s take a minute to talk about gamification, though I don’t typically use that word to describe my own work. You probably have a decent understanding of this concept — using game elements in non-game contexts, usually in relation to business goals. Many of the most popular apps have some element of gamification built into them, from Facebook’s “likes” to Foursquare’s badges, to this very platform’s excellent statistics summary.

Foursquare Badges

These elements tap into some of the psychological motivators needed to reach the flow state. Most notably, the first two: clear goals and feedback.

However, what gamification doesn’t do, what it can never do, is take us all the way there. The problem: a lack of true challenge and skill testing.

Picture a workplace that uses a gamified platform in order to boost productivity. Users/workers are rewarded for hitting milestones and quotas, and extrinsic rewards like bonuses and extra vacation time are linked to better performance, encouraging the workers to take the kinds of actions at their jobs that their bosses like. Even something as simple as an “employee of the month” award (or in school, gold stars) can be thought of as gamification. But what skill is being tested here? Doing what you should be doing anyway? Persistance in the face of boredom?

If an activity is already highly skill-testing (such as distance running) a platform that layers clear goals and feedback on top might assist with reaching the flow state, but it’s impossible for a non-game app or system to create flow on its own. I’d argue that even thinking about the flow state in app design and product design is a complete waste of time.

But thankfully there’s another concept from game design to help us out: Fiero.

Enter Fiero

From the Italian word for pride, fiero is defined as the thrill of triumph we get whenever we accomplish a difficult task. Here’s Jane McGonigal’s slightly saccharine take on it:

Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it — and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.

- Reality is Broken

Little bursts of fiero

Games are really, really good at creating this feeling. In a video game platformer you might experience fiero when you finally succeed after the 20th time attempting to jump over the same lava pit. Or when you defeat a very tough boss.

Board games are good at this, too. Look at Monopoly, a game that most modern game designers hate. It hits a lot of different bad design buttons: player elimination, high reliance on randomness (roll and move), a spiral of hopelessness that infects players as they are mathematically eliminated, brutal in-game politics, and an interminable end game. Why on earth would anyone subject themselves to this? Why does anybody actually like it?

Monopoly and slot machines are a match made in heaven.

Make no mistake, like it people do. The reason for this is primarily fiero. Especially in the early-to-mid game, Monopoly is lousy with fiero. Every turn you take, you get something! You move around the board, land on things, and rack up properties. As you round each corner, the properties get better and better. On turn 4–5, you finally make it around the board… and bam! $200 of sweet feedback. As the game progresses, you begin to build monopolies. Completing sets takes time, and probably tough negotiation. It’s not easy, and when you do it, it feels great. But the challenges don’t end there. You now get to equip your property with houses! Then, once you hit four houses, hotels. Ever more challenging, tiered goals create fiero again and again. That is, until the late game when the death spiral begins and you pray to go to jail just to avoid paying rent. But I digress.

Settlers of Catan, the most popular “euro” board game on the market, does this very well, too. Every single turn (even opponents’ turns!) there is a die roll that can give you stuff. As you acquire more and more, you can cash in cards to build settlements and roads. The roads give you access to more stuff, and you can begin upgrading your settlements to cities. There’s a bonus for getting the most stuff — longest road, most armies — and all of it is worth points. Fiero, fiero, fiero.

Settlers of Catan. White has the longest road (see right side of image).

For game designers, the lesson is obvious: give your players the opportunity to set numerous long and short term goals and then work toward them. This is just as applicable to systems designers, UX designers, app designers, and product designers. To fully engage your users, look for opportunities to instill fiero into your design. Let me stress once, just to be clear, that I’m not recommending that you just “gamify” all of your products. Fiero is simply one aspect of good design, and one tool in your designer’s toolkit.

Apps like Foursquare and Duolingo do it well, but you can see this approach in all kinds of successful apps and products. Fitbit’s 10,000 steps should ring a bell.

The next time you’re working on a design, try asking yourself how you can create opportunities for fiero. It’s one of the smartest ways to ensure user engagement in both the short and long term, and is relatively simple to layer into any system or practice. Your users will thank you, even if they don’t throw their arms over their heads and yell.

Sam Liberty is co-founder of Extra Ludic, a consultancy focussed on serious games for real-world impact. He teaches playful design and game criticism and theory at Northeastern University.


Sculpting Flow and Fiero by: Zac Hill

The Pursuit of Happiness: Csikzzentmiayli

Top 10 Video Game Emotions on: Only a Game