Flow in real-time physical prototyping of video games

Can we achieve flow states by using real-time mechanics in physical prototypes of video games?  I did a very quick investigation and convinced at least myself that the answer is “yes”.


In “Game Design Workshop,” Fullerton et al acknowledge the problem:

People who are not used to physical prototyping might argue that this method does not accurately represent the player experience on a computer. They might think a pen and paper prototype might work for a turn-based game, but not for an action-based shooter because gameplay is integrally tied to the 3D environment and the ability of the players to act in real time. 

Their answer, however, didn’t explain why it’s not often done:

“We are not arguing that physical prototyping replaces those things. What we are saying is the overall gaming system can benefit tremendously in its early stages by building a physical prototype.”

While, for many types of design questions, turn-based is sufficient; however, Csikszentmihalyi notes the player’s skewed perception of time during flow states:

“…in general, most people report time seems to pass much faster. But occasionally the reverse occurs: Ballet dancers describe how a difficult turn that takes less than a second in real time stretches out for what seems like minutes.”

If we could extend the range of physical prototyping to include flow states, I believe it would be very useful to video game designers.

I’m convinced it’s not too hard to achieve flow states with physical prototypes.

A brief search for real-time board games found only these:

  1. Counter – Selfpublished in 2011, it’s a real-time, hex-grid miniature battle – sounds ideal for RTS prototyping. Rules here.  Students and I will build, playtest and report back.
  1. Call of Duty RT is a real-time card game with a map. The video around 8:00 shows a “semi-realtime” play experience. Lots of pauses and rules execution.

These sources are related and useful to real-time prototypers:

  1. There are some wargames that have the player issuing troop controls in a somewhat real-time mechanic (cite and more research needed)
  2. Real-Time Chess (RTC) offers design ideas that could apply to common physical real-time problems (Chaboissier 2009 video)
  3. Hungry Hungry Hippos (video). It has a territory, it’s realtime, and while there’s no real strategy , it’s fun. for kids. for a short while anyway. (OK, I admit it’s not really relevant– I just love it!)

I would appreciate any suggestions for this list, provided they:

1. have some strategic or tactical element;
2. have a map or territory;
3. give a flow experience, like a real-time video game.

I’ve excluded mapless real-time card games. e.g. Jab Frenzy Brawl Fightball; Slapjack, Spit, etc.  I believe the spatial design element is crucial to the RTS video game genre, which these lack.


This project has been done on stolen time, so I used autoethnography as my method. I assessed the flow state by simply noting that I met the conditions for flow and strongly felt flow while playing.  I freely acknowledge that from a scientific point of view, my method is highly prone to bias and is weak on many obvious fronts (sample size, for a start), but I believe it is sufficient to justify further work.

My students and I created two real-time versions of Checkers.  The first version was “standard Checkers rules, except no turns.”  Four students watched and took notes as G and I played.  I estimate that we made 1 to 3 moves per second, and about 90% of our moves had some kind of purpose or plan (neither accidental, nor random / stalling). I recall two “breathers” – five-second periods where neither moved in about 5 minutes of play.

With Version 2 we added two rules:

  1. You must touch your nose after moving a piece one space.  This prevented long, continuous zigzag slides from one end to the other of the board, giving the other player the opportunity to break a run by jumping them, while still keeping most of the flow feeling of a run.
  2. collide=slapjack: If two pieces collide (ie we tried to move to the same place at the same time), then a “slapjack” minigame determined the winner: with the other hand, each player touched a certain spot on the table next to the board. Whoever’s finger was at the bottom, gets the spot.  The other player takes their move back.  Play does not stop during this.

I observed, but did not play, Version 2.  Players appeared to be as deeply engaged as I was.

Data (Realtime Checkers – player experience summary)

As I played version 1, I felt flow from the first move, and continued to feel it all the way until we stopped playing.  The 5 minute playtest felt like 20. My heart was pounding. My brain was in full game-strategy mode.

However, Checkers ruleset is too simple for RTS.  It felt more like novice multiplayer FPS experience: a pretty close match on decisions per second, and complexity of decision-making, to a beginner practicing against NPCs in TF2 or a friendly Unreal Tournament deathmatch.

I can imagine the reader might be snorting at the idea that Checkers could  “feel like multiplayer FPS.”  Here’s what I mean:

I felt the familar burden of low-grade performance stress, trying to keep an eye on the shifting sands of opportunities and threats, peppered with little sharp stabs of joy when I found a good move, and micro-dispair when I missed something important.

Because I was new to the game, I trialed, discarded or improved tactics, all in real time flow state, with little regard to long-term strategy (of which I doubt there is much).  I thought ahead two moves which enabled me to create crude move-jump combos, rather than move-by-move. I tried lame-duck tactics (to tempt her out when she was turtling).

I tried an online single-player version (“extreme checkers”  here …warning: lots of popup ads), but the unnatural speed of piece motion and mouseclicking made the first few minutes frustrating made the experience pretty weak.  The physical experience actually brings the game closer to FPS than the digital version.


I strongly believe flow states can be achieved with physical prototypes and believe there is reason to hope that physical prototypes might be able to model flow states in video games.  This study is far too limited to say much beyond that.

Returning to Fullerton’s observation on the gap between physical prototypes and video games: Obviously, much was missing between a FPS and realtime checkers:

  1. able to see the entire territory (birds-eye view)
  2. no range attack
  3. no theme
  4. no music

Some of these are easily testable. I look forward to future playtests with the stereo cranked and Warhammer figures.

Future research directions

There are two directions that this research suggests.

The first question is: is it possible to achieve a flow state in a map-based tabletop RTS?  While Checkers is too limited in strategic options to offer much insight on this question, I think games like CODRS and Boxing show that realtime play in phyiscal games with deeper strategy are combinable, and I feel there was enough promise to try it.

A larger and more crucial question is:  Does a flow experience in a physical prototype have any relation to a flow experience in the subsequent video game design?   In other words, if a prototype has flow, does this predict anything useful for the digital game?   I would dearly love to find out, though it might requires a much larger effort than a quick investigation such as this. As academics are so fond of saying, this is clearly a question for future research.


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About admin

Josh Whitkin is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Communication and Culture at Murdoch University. His areas of expertise include mobile device design and computer graphic content production.