ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Toward an understanding of flow in video games

By Ben Cowley, Darryl Charles, Michaela Black, Ray Hickey
Theoretical and Practical Computer Applications in Entertainment, [Vol. 6, No. 2]

DOI: 10.1145/1371216.1371223

In the domain of computer games, research into the interaction between player and game has centred on 'enjoyment', often drawing in particular on optimal experience research and Csikszentmihalyi's 'Flow theory'. Flow is a well-established construct for examining experience in any setting and its application to game-play is intuitive. Nevertheless, it's not immediately obvious how to translate between the flow construct and an operative description of game-play. Previous research has attempted this translation through analogy. In this article we propose a practical, integrated approach for analysis of the mechanics and aesthetics of game-play, which helps develop deeper insights into the capacity for flow within games.

The relationship between player and game, characterized by learning and enjoyment, is central to our analysis. We begin by framing that relationship within Cowley's user-system-experience (USE) model, and expand this into an information systems framework, which enables a practical mapping of flow onto game-play. We believe this approach enhances our understanding of a player's interaction with a game and provides useful insights for games' researchers seeking to devise mechanisms to adapt game-play to individual players.

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