2012. Vol.3, No.12A, 1243-1247
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1243
Positive Psychology and Digital Games: The Role of Emotions
and Psychological Flow in Serious Games Development
Andreas Alexiou1, Michaéla Schippers1, Ilan Osh ri2
1RSM, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
2School of Business and Econom ics, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK
Received October 1st, 2012; revised November 5th, 2012; accepted December 1st, 2012
In this paper we will discuss how positive psychology can contribute to the design of digital games and in
particular training applications like Serious Games. While digital games have been known for their ability
to deeply immerse users, stimulate the senses and tap into a broad range of emotions, it has proven rather
challenging to use them as a vehicle for pedagogy. Relevant research is still at its infancy and many of the
mechanisms that foster knowledge creation and enhance learning need to be mapped out before scripted
in the game. The theory of psychological flow and the role of positive emotions in broadening people’s
thought-action repertoires bring some practical insights and pave the path for tackling some important de-
sign questions. Yet there are still major challenges and uncharted waters to be explored in order for the
technology to deliver what has been promised.
Keywords: Positive Psychology; Flow; Serious Games; Positive Emotions; Digital Games
Since the turn of the millennium positive psychology has
become the umbrella framework for all scholars interested in
the conditions and processes that contribute to the overall well-
being and optimal functioning of people, groups and institu-
tions (Gable & Haidt, 2005). By focusing in the human virtues
and character strengths (Seligman et al., 2005; Sheldon & King,
2001), it aims to explore the mechanisms and conditions that
lead to personal thriving a nd ultima te ly , happi ness (for a revie w
see Schippers & Hogenes, 2011). A major component of per-
sonal development is the process of learning with its quintes-
sence being the virtue of wisdom and constructive knowledge.
While young children have an intrinsic curiosity and love for
learning, as they grow up and get introduced to formal educa-
tion, “motivational deficits” begin to appear that increase stead-
ily as children progress through school (Cordova & Lepper,
1996). One main cause for this is the pedagogical practice that
Brunner (1962, 1966) identified as decontextualization of in-
struction presenting new material in its most abstract or de-
contextualized form, hoping to promote a generalization of that
learning (Cordova & Lepper, 1996). This can be counteracted
by playful experiential learning. Digital games are often im-
mersive in nature and unleash the creativity, imagination and
curiosity of the participants (e.g. Habgood et al., 2005;
Hoffman & Nadelson, 2009; Jennett et al., 2008; Thomas &
Brown, 2007). The above qualities of digital games have
sparked a widespread interest towards the “marriage” of learn-
ing and play, in an attempt to produce a more engaging and
enjoyable le ar ning experience.
In the forefront of these developments is the blend of peda-
gogy with information technology and digital game elements
(e.g. Garris et al., 2002; Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2003). Bearing the
oxymoron name “Serious Games”, these software applications
aspire to bring into the world of learning, those elements of
digital games that stimulate, immerse and engage players (for a
review see Susi, Johannesson, & Backlund, 2007). Despite
existing skepticism and limited hard evidence on the effective-
ness of this technology, the Serious Games industry has en-
joyed exponential growth and is projected to expand to €10
billion by 2015 (IDATE, 2010).
The main motor behind this widespread interest are the in-
herent qualities of digital games. While well known for gener-
ating player engagement (Reeves & Read, 2009), digital games
also have the ability to provide players with control over sce-
narios; “emulate the real world and provide opportunities to
train with some realism but out of harm’s way” (Alexander et
al., 2005); even build stronger social bonds, and lead to more
active social networks by generating pro-social emotions
(McGonigal, 2011).
However the blending of pedagogy activities that educate
and instruct with entertainment poses serious challenges for
designers and more often than not produces dubious results.
With relevant research still at its infancy (Hays, 2005; Ke, 2009)
positive psychology can provide significant insights on the
processes and mechanisms that promote engagement as well as
the role of soft factors like emotions and human energy on the
ability to learn and generate knowledge.
The Essence of Digital Games
According to Zimmerman & Salen, (2003: p. 80) “A ga me is a
system in which players engage in an artificial conflict defined
by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome”. The above
definition provides us with four primary elements of games:
First, the artificiality is a defining characteristic of games.
Game play presupposes the existence of a “magic circle”, a
place in space and time where participants enter or even create
when the game begins (Zimmerman & Salen, 2003: p. 95).
According to Huizinga, (1955: p. 10) these are all “temporary
worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance
of an act apart”. Fantasy, which is a driver for motivation, is
therefore an important element within the act of play. Second,
conflict suggests that games embody a contest of powers. The
conflict could be between players or between players and the
computer and presupposes the existence of rules. Third, rules
exist to constrain behavior and provide a structure for the
emerging act of play while they define the challenge and
difficulty of the game. Finally, the artificial conflict is typically
followed by closure (the end of the game) in the form of a
quantifiable outcome that defines the winner or acts a mea-
surement of performance (score points).
The above ludic nature of games often coexists with a layer
of narrative. Be that abstract, minimal or complex, narrative
aims to immerse the player in the game, stimulate fantasy and
create emotional tension. In the case of digital games in
particular, the narrative of the game is substantially enhanced
by the use of visual (3D graphics) and aural (music, sound
effects) elements that provide the player with sensory stimuli.
The role of visual/aural aesthetics in creating the desired feeling
of immersion has been already highlighted; in terms of visual
aesthetics “the prototypical aesthetic experience is one in which
attention is firmly fixed upon the components of a visual
pattern, excludes the awareness of other objects or events, is
dominated by intense feelings or emotions and is integrated and
coherent” (Kubovy, 2000 cited in El-Nasr et al., 2007). On the
other hand music and sound effects besides enriching the
game-worlds and assisting player navigation are also important
for the semantic operations of games by invoking “cognitive
associations between types of music and interpretations of
causality, physicality and character” (Whalen, 2004). The inter-
play between aesthetics, fantasy and challenge provides a holi-
stic experi ence that en ergize s, immerses and ofte n leads play ers
to a state of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi “games are
obvious flow activities, and play is the flow experience par
excellence” (1975: pp. 36-37).
Unfortunately, while the many unique advantages of digital
games have already been highlighted and their potential as
learning tools widely discussed (e.g. Prensky, 2003; de Freitas,
2006), we still lack knowledge about the underlying mecha-
nisms through which these components can enhance the learn-
ing ability of players as well as the expert knowledge of how to
script desired outcomes like creativity, curiosity, imagination or
intrinsic motivation in the game. The theory of flow and exist-
ing research on positive emotions are two literature streams that
have already attracted the attention of game designers and
contribute towards this end.
The Theory of Flow
The construct of psychological flow that describes “the ho-
listic sensation that people feel when they act with total in-
volvement” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975: p. 31), stresses out the
role of optimal challenge in achieving such deep levels of im-
mersion/engagement. According to the theory of flow two cri-
teria need to be satisfied for an individual to experience flow: 1)
the activity must provide with optimal challenge—the per-
ceived level of ability must be in balance with the perceived
challenges 2) the perceived levels of challenge and skill must
be high. In this sense flow represents an optimum. In subopti-
mum situations, high skill coupled with low challenge results in
boredom while low skill and high challenge results in anxiety
and frustration. In the game environment, adjustable levels of
difficulty and a “leveling system”—how players advance their
abilities and power up—are typically implemented in order to
achieve this optimal state. There are two ways for the game
difficulty to be adjusted. Either the player chooses their skill
level (e.g. novice, experienced or expert) and the game adjusts
to their choice or the game tracks down the player’s perform-
ance and choice patterns and adjusts the game-world difficulty
level to the player’s skill. The mere existence of an adjustable
difficulty level however is not enough to guarantee engagement
or flow. There are many cases where games fail to confer the
required sense of character growth that is inherent to the state
of flow. Increasing in a more or less symmetrical way the vari-
ables of the game (e.g. weapon damage VS opponent’s shield
endurance) does not have the same effect as constantly ex-
panding one’s repertoire of actions, abilities and gear for
achieving the increasingly more difficult objectives.
A typical example of digital games where the leveling sys-
tem plays a central role, are Role Playing Games (RPGs). As
players progress and become more experienced they have a
chance to develop their characters’ abilities and strengths
through a “level-up” process and upgrade their gear so as to
cope with the ever-increasing sophistication of riddles and
enemies. The existence of challenges and foes that cannot be
overcome unless the player levels up gives meaning to charac-
ter growth. By having to choose among a multitude of abilities
to unlock or enhance and gear to equip, they in essence develop
their own approach/strategy in order to perform well in the
game. As a result , RPGs al lo w players to advance a wider set of
skills than the simple perceptual-motor skills that less sophisti-
cated games require. The player experiences an in-game trans-
formation, from ordinary person to extraordinary hero. The
avatar’s development resonates with the players’ intrinsic need
for growth and self-mastery. When implemented properly the
gaming experience is absolutely engaging, enjoyable and re-
The second contribution of the theory of flow is the identifi-
cation of clear goals, clear and consistent feedback, and the
feeling of control as important components for getting “in the
zone”. Goals are fundamental to games as they define the out-
come and a quantifiable outcome is part of the definition of
games. What is also important besides the clarity of the goals is
frequent feedback on how close the player is to achieving the
goal. The introduction of sub-goals as a guide for achieving the
ultimate objective can keep engagement and motivation levels
high. A typical example of such a technique is the use of mis-
sions, quests and sub-quests. Exploring the use of sub-goals in
order to provide the learner with the knowledge required to
accomplish the higher objective might be a viable strategy for
serious games designers.
Feedback is the cornerstone of reflection (Schippers, 2003).
Reflection refers to “a generic term for those intellectual and
affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their
experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appre-
ciation” (Boud et al., 1985). One mechanism of immediate
feedback that also acts as a quantifier of player skill and ex-
perience, is the game score; an expression of the cybernetic
process of play (Moore, 2011). Yet, feedback interventions
have been historically found to have a variable effect on per-
formance (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996) therefore there is a need to
further explore whether existing ways of providing feedback to
the player are beneficial and how feedback influences posi-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
tively or negatively the occurrence of immersion and flow.
Control refers to the exercise of authority or the ability to
regulate, direct, or command something (Garris et al., 2002).
Existing research in control and motivation in a learning con-
text shows that student control leads to higher motivation and
enhances learning (Cordova & Lepper, 1996). Games however
while capable of providing extensive control over scenarios,
strategies and decisions to the player, should at the same con-
strain the player’s behavior through the existence of rules. That
generates a conflict where the designer struggles between de-
grees of freedom—that would stimulate the creativity of play-
ers- and restraining rules—that would keep the challenge high
and give structure to the act of play.
Positive Affect and Emotions
According to Järvinen (2001, cited in Parikka & Suominen,
2006), the gaming situation is primarily an aesthetic situation of
certain percepts, affects and emotions that the game produces
for the player. Games are “imbued with the rhetorical strategies
of affect” (Calleja, 2007) and can tap into a broad range of
emotions and player experiences through the use of rich char-
acters, nuanced gameplay, complex social networks, and inter-
active stories (Squire, 2002). Games can generate emotions
ranging from joy, courage and bliss to anger, agony or even
horror. The existence of very commercially successful titles at
both sides of the continuum indicates that players find them
equally entertaining or “fun”. However in the case of Serious
Games delivering enjoyment may be sought after but is not the
basis for their existence. There is a need therefore for evaluat-
ing which subsets of emotions or states of affect are more
closely related to learning outcomes and personal development
and how can corresponding stimulants find their way into game
Emotions can be conceptualized as “multicomponent re-
sponse tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans”
(Fredrickson, 2001). This means that emotions are linked with
what emotion theorists call “specific action tendencies”. This
concept describes how different discreet emotions invoke cor-
responding actions/responses. Joy in particular has been found
to invoke the urge to play. Playfulness allows for safe experi-
mentation and during the act of play individuals build enduring
social bonds (e.g. Lee, 1983) and intellectual resources by
boosting creativity (Sherrod & Singer, 1989) and fueling brain
development, especially in younger ages (Panksepp, 1998). In
the same way intrinsic interest creates an urge for exploration,
openness to new experiences and information that naturally
lead to personal growth.
According to Fredrickson (2001), “certain discrete positive
emotions—including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and
love—although phenomenologically distinct, all share the abil-
ity to broaden people’s momentary thought—action repertoires
and build their enduring personal resources, ranging from
physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological
resources”. The expanded repertoire of thoughts and actions
enables a person to come up with more ideas further enhancing
ingenuity (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Isen, 2000).
Positive emotions and states of affect seem to enhance proc-
esses vital for learning but the role of negative emotions re-
mains ambiguous. While generally a happy person is more
prone to creative and exploratory behavior (Huy, 1999), in the
case of failure, jealousy, envy, a shattered self-esteem and
self-sacrifice, can act as motivators for re-engaging in the act of
gaming to pursue new events and more excitement (Mortensen,
2002). Additionally, the theory of flow informs us that feelings
of enjoyment, accomplishment and satisfaction typically occur
in retrospect as all concentration is focused on the task during
actual engagement (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This raises inter-
esting questions regarding the necessity of an optimal blend of
positive and negative feelings (like agitation, tension) during
the gaming experience. The method of “tension and release”
that is central in many forms of art for example serves such a
purpose. Tension is present in forms of art as a means for cre-
ating emotional hooks and games are especially good at deliv-
ering that feeling of being on edge. A challenge for game de-
velopers is therefore to manage that very player tension. The
dynamism between the two phases works as a catharsis for the
player; “the heightened feeling of triumph is an emotional re-
sponse following a period of particularly heightened tension”
(Rose, 2010). Yet there is no evidence to our knowledge on
how such a mechanism would influence learning and the sub-
processes of it.
Personality and Learning Styles
While most of the previous discussion focused primarily on
identifying the antecedents and psychological mechanisms
behind flow, enjoyment, or creativity and how they can be
mapped out and incorporated in game design, it is equally im-
portant to consider what distinguishes certain individuals more
prone to such states or emotions than others. In the case of flow,
it has been reported that not all individuals are equally capable
of experiencing the growth-enhancing state of flow frequently
or intensely (e.g. Lefevre, 1988). According to Csikszent-
mihalyi, (1975, 1990, 1997) individuals who perform activities
for their own sake rather than trying to achieve an external goal
are considered to have an autotelic personality and are more
inclined towards experiencing flow than others. Composed out
of the two Greek roots auto (self) and telos (goal) autotelic
personalities pursue and exhibit high levels of intrinsic motiva-
tion in their daily activities and they tend to pursue activities
that satisfy their internal needs. Despite its centrality in the
theory of flow however, the autotelic personality has received
limited attentions by positive psychology scholars (Asakawa,
Personality can also determine the learning styles adopted by
individuals (Kolb, 1984). There is empirical evidence that
learning styles are related to educational involvement, motiva-
tion (Honey & Mumford, 1992), and student performance
(Holley & Jenkins, 1993; Okebukola, 1986; Roach et al., 1993).
The classification of learning styles springs from Kolb’s (1984)
Experiential Learning Theory which considers the creation of
knowledge as a combination of grasping and transforming ex-
perience (ibid. p. 41). The four phases in this process are: con-
crete experience; reflective observation; abstract conceptualiza-
tion and active experimentation. Based on the reliance of an
individual on any of the above learning modes we can identify
different learning styles (strategies). Experiential learning the-
ory is a model of human knowledge where knowledge special-
ties are mapped by their relative emphasis on the two dimen-
sions of concreteness versus abstractness and action versus
reflection (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1995). The combinations of the
above specialties introduce different learning types (profiles)
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1245
Convergers: abstract conceptualization + active experiment-
tation. They are good at making practical applications of
ideas and using deductive reasoning to solve problems.
Divergers: concrete experience + reflective observation.
They are imaginative and are good at coming up with ideas
and seeing things from different perspectives.
Assimilators: abstract conceptualization + reflective ob-
servation. They are capable of creating theoretical models
by means of inductive reasoning.
Accommodators: concrete experience + active experiment-
tation. They are good at actively engaging with the world
and actually doing things instead of merely reading about
and studying them.
The above short discussion shows the importance of consid-
ering the moderating effect of personality when exploring the
relationship between positive psychology concepts and learning.
Given that a particular game setup will not be universally com-
patible with the expectations and dispositions of all players
there is a need for incorporating in the game design mecha-
nisms for the game to adapt to the payer’s choices and allow
her to use different strategies for creating and assimilating
Digital games are designed experiences where the “cognitive,
emotional, and kinaesthetic feedback loop that is formed be-
tween the game process and the player” can significantly affect
players’ moods and emotional states (Calleja, 2007). In combi-
nation with the technology’s ability to create accurate spatial,
situational or mechanical simulations, digital games can be
transformed into highly engaging and sophisticated learning/
training tools. Incorporating pedagogy in the gaming experi-
ence poses significant challenges and positive psychology holds
certain keys to tackle them.
Exploring the antecedents and processes that invoke intrinsic
motivation and lead to engagement and flow, understanding
how, why and under which conditions positive emotions en-
hance the learning ability, investigating the mechanism through
which curiosity and creativity is sparked and retained, how
personality moderates these effects as well as the role of pleas-
ure and enjoyment in learning and retaining knowledge are only
some of the areas that could help us fine-tune games so as to
resonate with the innate needs of individuals for self-develop-
ment and personal growth.
The theory of flow has already provided developers with
important insight on some aspects of their design such as the
importance of balancing challenges to player skill, the existence
of clearly defined goals, and the provision of immediate feed-
back (e.g. Carr et al., 2006; Juul, 2005; King & Krzywinska,
2006). At the same time the positive emotions that are associ-
ated with the energetic activation of individuals have been
shown to broaden the available thought-action repertoire that a
person has during any given activity (Fredrickson, 2001; Quinn,
et al., 2012; Schippers & Hogenes, 2011).
Unfortunately research linking specific positive emotions to
corresponding action tendencies is scarce (Fredrickson &
Levenson, 1998) as is the literature regarding the moderating
effects of the autotelic personality and user enjoyment on
learning during game-play. Maybe it is not possible to directly
script flow, positive affect or creativity and open-mindedness in
the game but relevant research can enlighten us regarding the
background mechanisms and relationships that can be taken
into consideration while developing such applications. Positive
psychology could contribute to the advancement of a medium
and technology that will not only enhance traditional methods
of training/education but also revolutionize a “representational
form that could help us understand the reality that surrounds us
and, above all, what it means to be human” (Frasca, 2001).
Our research is funded under the EU FP7 Marie Curie Re-
search Training Network and is part of the Management of
Emerging Technologies for Economic Impact project. We
would like to thank Prof. Dr. Ing. Frans Van Den Bosch for his
insightful comments and support.
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