4 min read

How Ranking Systems and Personality influence Flow State and Emotions

How Ranking Systems and Personality influence Flow State and Emotions

Welcome everyone, to a new episode of 'Gaming Science'.

Today, we're discussing the flow state in gaming and esports. Specifically, you'll learn about the impact of receiving positive (win) or negative (lose) feedback on gamers' flow state, emotions, and motivation. Additionally, you'll discover the role of individual differences and how you can leverage this knowledge to have more fun gaming and potentially improve your rank.

• The feedback of winning or losing (e.g., ladder board, ranking, Elo, or MMR) impacts our emotions and flow state.
"[Flow is] the holistic sensations that people feel when they act with total involvement [1]."
• Receiving winning feedback increases the experience of flow.
• The more of a competitive personality one has, the more that person is influenced by winning feedback.
• Anxiety loosens as competitive individuals receive winning feedback.
• Highly competitive individuals (esports athletes or casual gamer) are therefore impacted by the positive (or lack of) feedback they receive.
• Positive feedback increases flow, pleasure, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation.
• For casual gamer, knowing when to hit the "Play" button again is important to increase the enjoyment and pleasure from gaming, as well as motivation and chance to climb the ladder.
• Esports athletes need to be aware of this and build mental resilience to not let negative outcome feedback get to them.

Close your eyes and visualize yourself in the largest esports arena, surrounded by thousands of people roaring. Their voices electrify the air, causing the floor to shake, and you can feel the vibrations in your body. You're aware that your friends, family, and thousands more fans are watching you on screens at home.

You're in the grand finals - a best-of-5 - and you've just clinched map one. As you open your eyes, turn around, and catch a glimpse of your opponent's expression, you begin to sense it. It feels as though the stars have aligned, and you're eager to dive into map 2. The game begins, and instantly, you're in "the zone". This sensation is commonly known as the "flow state".

"[Flow is] the holistic sensations that people feel when they act with total involvement [1]."

At the same time - unlike your opponent, who is currently trailing 1-0 and feeling the mounting pressure - you feel competent and motivated, "both of which are closely related to flow [1]". But what exactly transpired here? We'll elucidate why receiving competition outcome feedback (win or lose) affects your flow state and emotions, and how individual differences play a role as well.

💾 Method

In order to simulate real gaming and esports scenarios as closely as possible, the researchers conducted an experiment involving 108 gamers [5]. Each participant played against real opponents. Some of them received feedback on their ranking on a leader board (positive and negative competition outcome feedback), while others did not (control group).

🌊 Results

The main finding is that indeed, the sole direction (win or loss) of the information players received affected their flow state. Those who won and received positive feedback on the leader board experienced a significantly enhanced flow experience compared to those who received negative feedback and players from the group who received no feedback.

Now, let's turn to individual differences. One of the main components that distinguishes players (and people in general) is their competitive drive. In the study, these differences come through in the results as those who have a more competitive personality were more strongly influenced by receiving winning feedback. Another individual aspect that was investigated was anxiety.

"[Interestingly, the authors were able to show that] for those with high trait competitiveness, receiving winning feedback can relieve anxiety and in turn enhance their flow experience [1]."

🤔 Implications

Now, let's recall the situation I painted at the beginning. The results make it all so clear why you (the one who just won map one) and your opponent (who is now behind 1:0) experience such different emotions and flow state.

It's not hard to imagine that esports athletes are very competitive individuals, and therefore, the feedback on winning or losing appears to impact their flow state. Similarly, other studies have found that similar outcome feedback positively impacts the enjoyment and pleasure people feel, as well as their intrinsic motivation [2, 3, 4].

If you think about your own experience when playing, it should come as no surprise that you may feel in a similar way. Video games have features that allow for the same mechanism to affect your emotions and flow state; that feature is the ranking system, leader board, Elo, MMR, etc.

Consequently, when you just won a match and take a look at your ranking, you may feel fewer negative emotions (such as anxiety) and more "in the zone." If your plan is to keep on playing, that's the right moment to do it. On the contrary, when you just lost a match, it's probably a good idea to take a moment before hitting the "Play" button again, because a loss can have a negative influence on your mood and ultimately your performance.

For esports athletes in a competition, it is important to be aware of these mechanisms in order to "play" around them and learn to cope with them. Athletes have to work on ways to increase their resilience and not let a loss get to them - which in turn can negatively impact their following performance.

Unfortunately today, I cannot tell you to what degree trait competitiveness, changes in anxiety, and receiving competition-outcome feedback (win or lose) impact performance. That would be one interesting question to explore. However, for the time being, know this: the positive (win) or negative (loss) feedback (e.g., ladder rank) has an impact on your emotions and flow state and should guide your decision on when to play the next match. However, this is only the case for those who are moderately or highly competitive.

What do you think? Let me hear your thoughts on Twitter (X) and LinkedIn.

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Thanks for reading. Have a great Sunday. Cheers,

Christian 😃


[1] Csikszentmihalyi, 1975
[2] Griffiths et al., 2016
[3] Vermeulen et al., 2014
[4] Reeve, & Deci, 1996
[5] Zhang et al., 2023

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