Abstract | Introduction | Foundation | Design Flow in Games | Implement Flow in Games | Conclusion | Bibliography


“TWENTY-THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness...”
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990)


In the last 30 years, as a form of entertainment, video games have evolved from confined arcade activities into a mature media. Video games have deeply infiltrated our daily life and our society.

As if toys expanded every child’s imagination, modern videogames take advantage of a player's active involvement to open more possibilities than any other existing mediums. [Wright 2006] More and more people grow up playing video games, treating them not only as an art form but also as serious media. 

However, video games are still recognized by the majority, who do not play video games, as shallow and aggression-provoking materials. The difference between watching someone playing a video game, and playing a video game by yourself, is tremendous. The most efficient way to reduce bias and resistance from non-gamers is to create games they feel like playing. When a non-gamer can find a game they enjoy, they will no longer consider video games shallow.

Due to the nature of marketing and business, making video games purely for non-gamers is too risky and impractical. Game developers are looking for ways to expand the reach of their products. By taking existing intellectual properties from books or movies, making games appealing to both gamers and non-gamers is not as difficult as it seems to be. However making a game that both gamers and non-gamers can enjoy is quite a challenge.

The quality and the budget of typical commercial video games today can easily reach over 20 million dollars. Ironically, because of the richness and the length of their content, most gamers can’t even finish their games today. While these games might be fine for their target audience, but are excessively boring or challenging for other gamers. Million-dollar production values are wasted at that point.

As the market of video games grows, methodologies for video games to adapt to different types of gamers, while keeping all of them engaged, are in demand for the next generation of gaming.


20 years ago, with an intention to explain happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found Flow, the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. [Debold 2002]

Csikszentmihalyi developed a series of theories to help people get into their Flow state. Since then, these theories have been applied to various fields for designing better human interactive experiences. One of his most inspiring achievements in these theories is the definition of the Flow Zone, also known as “the Zone” by the gamers:

flow zone

In order to maintain a person’s Flow experience, the activity needs to reach a balance between the challenges of the activity and the abilities of the participant. If the challenge is higher than the ability, the activity becomes overwhelming and generates anxiety. If the challenge is lower than the ability, it provokes boredom. Fortunately, human beings have tolerance, there is a fuzzy safe zone where the activity is not too challenging or too boring, and psychic entropies like anxiety and boredom would not occur. [Csikszentmihalyi 1990]

Due to the special relationship between challenge and ability, Flow has been used in fields like sports and tutoring. The famous GRE test is a good example of design based on the concept of the Flow Zone.

The description of Flow is identical to what a player experiences when totally immersed in a video game. During this experience, the player loses track of time and forgets all external pressures. It is obvious that gamers value video games based on whether or not those games can provide Flow experiences. [Holt 2000]

Thus, much research is being done about how to use Flow to evaluate video game experiences. However, there are only a few researchers out there dealing with the actual implementation of Flow inside video games.

Methodologies that help game designers to realize and maintain players' Flow experiences are not well defined.

Overview of the Thesis

The remainder of this thesis is organized into four chapters.

In Foundation – We will further explore Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory, introduce the concept of DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment), and check out existing research and methodologies about DDA

In Design Flow in Games – We are going to discuss the in-depth methodology about implementing Flow and player-oriented DDA inside video game.

In Implement Flow in Games – Two games created specifically for testing player-oriented DDA and their test results are presented.

In Conclusion – We would summarize the methodology, review the next research step, and look at possible application beyond video games.

Summary of the Contribution

The goal for Jenova Chen's MFA thesis research is to explore and develop different design techniques to enhance the Flow experience in video games. It includes general Flow design theories & processes, analysis of the existing games' Flow designs and examples of how to implement Flow with these techniques.

The contributions of this thesis, with respect to this goal, include:

  • A recap of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory from a game design perspective
  • An overview of the current generation system-oriented DDA research and techniques
  • Reinvent DDA with user/player-oriented concept
  • Two new games which embody the player-oriented DDA including a discussion of the inner workings of each
  • An overview of further directions and unexplored avenues for future research in the domain of achieving Flow through video game design

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