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Most of us can probably think of a time when we were enjoying a video game and then's 2 am. And that may not be entirely your fault! Video games are designed with elements that suck you in and put you in a state of flow, making it easy to miss how just much time is passing.

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Most of us can probably think of a time when we were enjoying a video game and suddenly…. I’m sorry, how is it 2 am already?

And that may not be entirely your fault. That’s because video games have elements that hack your brain and suck you in. See, video games are designed to put you in a state of flow that feeling of intense focus and enjoyment that makes you feel “in the zone”.

Now, this is fun for players -- and what’s fun for players is also good for game developers who want to make games that people will buy. And we actually know quite a bit about how video games achieve flow. So let’s take a closer look at some of the ways they do it.

One of the key criteria for flow is that the task has to match the game's level of challenge with players' level of skill. Too easy and the task is boring. Too hard and you might become frustrated.

Video games do this by ramping the difficulty up gradually over time, creating a difficulty curve. They’ll do that by starting out with a tutorial section to let you get familiar with the game, then gradually introducing tougher elements. In studies, we can mimic that by manipulating the difficulty of a game, then looking at whether participants reach a state of flow and what’s happening in their brains.

For example, a 2017 study had participants play a ping-pong game at different speeds, with faster speeds being more challenging. When the speed matched up with a player’s skill level, researchers saw an increase in theta wave activity in a bunch of specific areas of their brains. And that kind of brain activity has been linked to increased concentration and sustained attention.

In fact, in a 2019 study, researchers directly stimulated the prefrontal and parietal brain areas of people playing Tetris and a first-person shooting game to mimic those brain waves. Other players wore the same device with just some placebo stimulation as a control. And players reported feeling more in the zone with the real brain stimulation than fake.

But it’s not just that you’re concentrating, it’s that you’re enjoying concentrating too. Turns out those same theta waves have been linked to autotelic experiences something you do that’s basically its own reward because you really enjoy it. And when people are playing a game they like, there’s an increase in those brain waves.

Games can also help you tune out everything else -- even your thoughts. That same ping-pong game study also found an increase in delta wave activity in the central and parietal areas of the brain. Normally, those kinds of waves are linked with relaxation.

In gameplay, they might be dampening other sensory inputs helping players tune out their surroundings and zone in on the game. Part of the way games trigger you to lose your sense of self-awareness is through their visuals. A game you’re really deeply into gets the brain’s visual system all fired up.

A 2019 study demonstrated this by getting people to play a car racing game with different tasks, like collecting as many coins as possible or avoiding obstacles. After they’d played for a while, participants would fill out questionnaires designed to gauge whether they were experiencing flow. In flow states, the players’ dorsal and ventral visual areas were active.

The researchers suggested that meant they needed to process a lot more visual information as the task got harder. That same study also found less activity in a series of regions known as the Default Modal Network. The default modal network gets deactivated when you’re concentrating on something it basically shuts out your inner self talk and daydreaming ability so you can focus.

Finally, what happens when you’re ultra-focused and having a great time? You lose sense of time. And, yup, video games have a way of doing that too.

Not just through concentration and fun, but through music as well. A 2010 study played music in the background as participants played a maze video game. When researchers asked the players how much time had passed, the players’ estimates were less accurate if they’d been listening to music they liked than if they’d been sitting in silence.

This study concluded that music might not necessarily be drawing your attention into the game, but rather away from other things like keeping track of how much time has passed. Elements like challenge and our sense of time all feed into flow, and there are even more aspects we haven’t had time to go into. Video games are great at ticking those other boxes off too.

But, as is often the case, the relationship between our brains, video games, and flow isn’t straightforward. VIdeo games aren’t all the same, and it doesn’t necessarily make sense to compare the cognitive effects of Minecraft to Skyrim to Call of Duty. That’s led one group of researchers to propose that research should focus on two games:Space Fortress and 3D Super Mario.

Those are already well studied, and could lead to video game research yielding more comparable results. And that might jllllust lead to even more fun games. As if we need more excuses to play!

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