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Flow and the Enjoyment of Video Games
Barry P. Smith
University of Alabama
3511 3rd Ave. E
Tuscaloosa, AL 35405
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This paper was solely student-written.
Flow and the Enjoyment of Video Games
This paper examines how flow may contribute to the experience of
enjoyment derived from playing video games. Entertainment theories
and flow theory are briefly reviewed and then applied to the medium
of video games. Video game enjoyment is theorized as the result flow
which occurs when the challenge presented by a video game is
relatively high and matched with an individual's perception of his or
her level of skill at playing the game.
The video game has become one of the most popular entertainment
media in the U.S. Video game sales have grown steadily, decade by
decade, since the mainstream introduction of home video game consoles
in the early '80s. In 2004, the movie Spider-Man 2 set a new
opening-day ticket sales record by generating $40.4 million in sales.
However, in the same year, the much-anticipated video game Halo 2 set
a new first-day sales record by generating $125 million in sales
(Entertainment Software Association, 2005). While video gaming has
yet to replace television viewing as the most popular form of mass
media entertainment, a recent Kaiser study (Roberts, Foehr, &
Rideout, 2005) found that 83% of 8- to 18-year-olds have at least one
video game console in the home, and that this same age group averages
just under 50 minutes per day playing video games.
Although video games have attracted a fair amount of research
focusing on the potential negative effects of use (particularly by
children), the study of video games as an entertainment medium is
still a relatively nascent field. This is partly the result of the
relative newness of entertainment research as a scholarly field in
its own right. As has been pointed out by Zillmann and Bryant (1994),
however, entertainment is actually the main intended effect of most
mass media content, and therefore worthy of study.
Entertainment research in the areas of television, film, and music
(and types of content across media) has theorized a number of ways in
which individuals obtain entertainment from media content, and has
also identified a number of psychological mechanisms underlying the
experience of being entertained. So-called "new" or "interactive"
media such as video games pose new questions and challenges for
scholars. How do interactive media differ from traditional media, and
how are they similar? What is entertaining about brandishing virtual
weapons in a mediated environment? Why do many individuals buy
software and pay monthly subscription fees to allow their avatars to
interact with other people's avatars in a virtual world? What
mechanisms might underlie the enjoyment individuals derive from
playing video games? These questions, and others, await systematic
study from scholars interested in mass media's main effect.
This paper contributes to this body of research by examining how one
particular psychological mechanism, flow, may contribute to the
derivation of enjoyment from playing video games. First, a couple of
prominent theories in entertainment research will be briefly
reviewed. Second, the applicability of these theories will be
discussed in relation to video games. Third, flow theory and its
applications will be reviewed. Finally, a video game entertainment
model centered around flow will be presented.
Entertainment has been loosely defined as "any activity designed to
delight and, to a smaller degree, enlighten through the exhibition of
the fortunes or misfortunes of others, but also through the display
or special skills by others and/or self" (Zillmann & Bryant, 1994, p.
438). The systematic study of entertainment as a media effect is
generally compatible with the uses and gratifications paradigm.
Within this framework, which has served for several decades as a
foundation for a great deal of research into media use, individuals
are viewed as more or less active users of media. Earlier theoretical
frameworks (such as the notions of mass media as a "magic bullet" or
"hypodermic needle") posited individuals as passive receptors of
mass-mediated messages. Uses and gratifications research focuses on
the reasons why individuals actively use media, and the effects of
that use (Rosengren, 1974; Rubin, 1994).
One of the major tenets of entertainment research has been that
experience stamps preference. When an individual, by design or
accident, happens upon certain media fare, the individual is capable
of noticing whether a more positive or more negative response or
mood results. When the result is positive, the individual will likely
seek that type of media fare again. When the result is negative, the
individual will likely avoid that type of media fare in the future,
given other choices.
According to mood management theory (Zillmann, 1988), one way
individuals can achieve positive moods and relieve noxious moods is
by altering their levels of excitement and the focus of their
attention. When individuals are over-stimulated, they can relieve
this state by consuming calm media fare. When they are
under-stimulated, they can relieve this state by consuming arousing
media fare. Additionally, individuals can achieve some relief from
negative psychological or physical conditions by temporarily focusing
attention elsewhere, or, as John Cleese would say, on "something
completely different." The distraction provided by media fare to
these individuals can often be a very welcome relief (Zillmann & Bryant, 1994).
An important characteristic of mood management theory is that
individuals choose one type of media fare over others, i.e. they
exhibit selective exposure. Through prior experience with various
types of media fare, individuals develop preferences and expectations
in their media consumption behaviors. Although most prior mood
management research has focused on traditional media fare, such as
film and television, the theory should be somewhat applicable to
video games, as well. Just as sitcoms and dramas can distract and
alter levels of excitation, so should video games also provide
distraction and some level of excitation regulation. One thing video
games may not be able to provide well, however, is calming content.
Because video games require constant attention and control, they may
require too much participation to be truly calming.
Affective disposition theory (Raney, 2000; Zillmann, 2000) posits
another way in which individuals can derive entertainment from media
fare—by seeing liked characters succeed and disliked characters fail.
According to disposition theory, individuals consuming media fare
evaluate the behaviors exhibited by media characters. Characters who
exhibit a moral valence similar to the viewer's own (i.e. the
characters make moral judgments the viewer approves of) are liked,
and the viewer hopes for the characters to experience positive
outcomes. Characters who exhibit a moral valence different from the
viewer's own are disliked, and the viewer hopes for the characters to
experience negative outcomes.
According to this theory, suspense is evoked because viewers desire
positive outcomes, but fear negative outcomes, for liked characters.
Conversely, viewers desire negative outcomes, but fear positive
outcomes, for disliked characters. Will the hero escape the villain
and save the day? Or will the villain get the upper hand on the hero
this time? As the narrative progresses, viewers experience increased
emotional distress and higher levels of arousal. If the liked
characters prevail, and the disliked characters are vanquished, this
built-up arousal becomes conflated with the positive affective
response to the narrative's outcome through excitation transfer
(Raney, 2000; Zillmann, 1983).
Although these theories have been quite fruitful for research
regarding traditional entertainment media, they cannot be applied to
video games in the same manner. As mentioned previously, video games
may not be able to provide calming fare for the over-stimulated
individual. Because video games require a great deal of attention and
control, they are generally highly arousing. Thus, video games may be
able to relieve under-stimulation quite easily. Relief of under- or
over-stimulation is only part of mood management, however. It also
involves distraction from negative cognitions. When an individual is
experiencing a noxious mood brought on by physical or psychological
distress, media fare can be used as a distractor or temporary escape
mechanism. Video games, by their involving nature, can allow
individuals' attention to be absorbed by something other than their
distress. Therefore, video games may have some usefulness as tools of
Affective disposition theory may be less applicable to video games,
though. The main feature of video games is control (Grodal, 2000).
The individual does not passively view actions by on-screen
characters. Instead of being a moral monitor of others' actions, the
individual playing a video game is the on-screen character. The
player him- or herself chooses the course of each action. The player
may experience some level of affective disposition based on the
plight of the character as presented in a game's backstory, but the
moral actions of the character are the result of the player's own judgments.
Without moral actions of another to judge, individuals would be left
to decide whether they agree with their own actions and therefore
hope for positive outcomes for themselves. Of course individuals
generally desire positive outcomes for themselves, but this is a
condition of day-to-day life and should provide no incentive for
engaging in video games. The experience of suspense while watching
films usually depends on the viewer knowing something the liked
characters do not know (thus causing the fear of negative outcomes
for the liked characters). However, in video games, the character
knows everything the player knows because the player is the
character. Without knowledge that something bad might happen to an
unsuspecting likeable character, players are left without suspense,
and thus without a key element of entertainment under affective
The basic conclusion to be drawn is that new interactive media such
as video games pose new challenges for study and theory-building
(Vorderer, Bryant, Pieper, & Weber, in press). Individuals are
deriving a great deal of enjoyment from playing video games, and
enjoyment has been identified as the heart of media entertainment
(Sherry, 2004; Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004). How is this
enjoyment being obtained? What possible mechanisms can be proposed to
As mentioned previously, entertainment research has gone forward in
a manner largely compatible with the uses and gratifications
paradigm. As an indicator that entertainment research can
successfully tackle the area of video games, a uses and
gratifications approach has been applied to the study of video games
by several scholars. Selnow (1984), for example, adapted an earlier
television uses and gratifications scale and utilized it to examine
why young people play video games. Phillips et al. (1995) found
several uses being made of video games, including procrastination,
mood management, and enjoyment. Sherry and his colleagues (Lucas &
Sherry, 2004; Sherry, 2004; Sherry et al., in press) have identified
six primary dimensions of video game use: arousal, challenge,
competition, diversion, fantasy, and social interaction.
In order to provide a more comprehensive theoretical foundation for
explaining how these uses and gratifications are satisfied by video
games, Sherry (2004) has proposed a synthesis from the areas of uses
and gratifications research and flow theory. Based on
Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Nakamura &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), Sherry proposed that individuals obtain
enjoyment from media messages or content (such as video games) that
match message characteristics with an individual's ability to
interpret the message. Relatively difficult or complex messages may
engender frustration or anxiety for individuals who lack the
requisite ability to handle such a level of difficulty. Relatively
simplistic messages may contribute to boredom for individuals whose
abilities are far beyond the level required for understanding the
message. There is a middle ground in which flow can be achieved and
enjoyment can be experienced.
The idea that playing video games may contribute to a flow state is
not new. As early as 1982, flow was linked to the phenomenon called
"Pac-Man fever." Bowman (1982) theorized that the playing of video
games promotes active learning behavior by making individuals
participate rather than passively receive imparted knowledge. It is
in the participation that individuals find reward. The learning that
occurs while playing a game is a extrinsic by-product of intrinsic
enjoyment. However, the linkage between flow and video game enjoyment
has not been systematically studied, nor has a conceptual model been
developed, during the intervening decades.
The flow construct was proposed by Csikszentmihalyi 30 years ago.
Although the study of flow grew out of Csikszentmihalyi's research in
creativity, it has been applied across many different fields over the
last three decades. In short, Csikszentmihalyi's (1990, 1993;
Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) research characterizes flow as a
psychological state in which an individual is immersed in an activity
to such a degree that reality outside the activity fades from
awareness. In this state, individuals lose awareness of themselves as
social actors in the situation. The flow state is autotelic, or
characterized by enjoyment in an activity for the sake of the
doing—not for an external goal.
More specifically, flow is characterized by: focused concentration
on present activity, merging of awareness and action, loss of
reflective self-consciousness, a sense of control and the ability to
successfully respond to occurrences as they transpire, a loss of
awareness of time passing, and enjoyment of the present activity for
its own sake. (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
The potential occurrence of flow is dependent on two main factors
(as perceived by the individual): challenge and skill. Challenge can
be thought of as the degree of difficulty associated with any given
activity. Skill is an individual's ability to perform that activity.
Both of these factors may be present in relatively high or low levels
at any given time. Based on these two factors, Csikszentmihalyi
developed a taxonomy describing four states, or channels, individuals
may experience when engaged in any given activity: boredom, anxiety,
flow, and apathy.
Boredom occurs when an individual finds him- or herself in a
situation in which skill exceeds challenge. Conversely, anxiety
occurs in situations in which challenge exceeds skill. Originally,
Csikszentmihalyi described flow as the channel in which challenge and
skill are equally matched. However, further research revealed that
flow actually occurs when challenge and skill are matched and both
are perceived as being high. This is what Csikszentmihalyi terms
"optimal experience." Challenge and skill are also matched, though,
when both are perceived to be low. This channel was differentiated
from flow and dubbed apathy. Apathy does not share flow's positive
Csikszentmihalyi has also described activities that are
particularly good at promoting the occurrence of a flow state. These
activities are characterized as: (1) having concrete goals with
manageable rules; (2) making it possible to adjust opportunities for
action to fit one's capabilities; (3) providing clear information or
feedback on performance; and (4) screening out distraction and making
concentration possible (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993).
In one typical flow study, Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989)
examined the occurrence of flow in various work and leisure
situations. The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) was used to gather
data from individuals at randomly selected times each day.
(Participants carried around pagers and self-report logbooks during
the study.) Data collected included descriptions of activities
engaged in and the quality of the experiences. Csikszentmihalyi and
LeFevre found that respondents experienced flow more often at work
than during leisure time and that quality of experience was generally
higher during flow situations than nonflow situations. Apart from
work, the activity associated with the greatest occurrence of flow
was driving a car, leading Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre to conclude
that, "a feeling of using one's skills in a challenging situation is
difficult to achieve outside of work, except behind the wheel of a
car." (1989, p. 820).
Flow was generally found to occur when participants felt themselves
"up to the task" during challenging activities. Of particular
interest to entertainment research is the finding that watching
television was not one of the activities that correlated with the
experience of flow. Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre (1989) theorized
that television viewing was a relatively passive activity which did
not provide a high enough level of challenge to stimulate flow. This
indicates that entertainment derived from television is not dependent
on the experience of flow. However, video games represent a much more
active method of leisure—more akin to driving than watching
television in the level of attention and control required.
Flow has been examined in the fields of education, media use
(particularly television viewing and Web usage), sports, and many
other areas. Particularly germane to the application of flow theory
to video game enjoyment is the theory's application in studies of
media use and human-computer interaction.
Konradt, Filip, and Hoffmann (2003) used the flow construct in their
examination of positive affect and success at using management
training software. In their study of hypermedia-based training
software, they found that dimensions of flow and positive affect were
highly correlated. They also found that a high perceived probability
of success correlated with motivation during the training. One
difficulty encountered by Konradt, et al. was that participants did
not have a great deal of autonomy in progressing through the training
session. This led to some participants experiencing apathy rather
than flow and suggests that the autonomy associated with video gaming
may be an important factor in achieving flow.
Ghani and Deshpande (1994) found that perceived task challenge and
the sense of being in control were key factors in the experience of
flow while using computers. They also found a positive link between
flow and exploratory-use behavior. Further, through its influence on
exploratory-use behavior, flow was found to encourage more extensive
computer usage. Exploratory-use behavior is necessary for successful
completion of many video games and thus may be indirectly related to
enjoyment obtained from those games.
Hoffman and Novak (1996) examined marketing communications via
hypermedia computer-mediated environments, or CMEs, from a flow
perspective. They contrasted these hypermedia CMEs, such as the World
Wide Web, with traditional media. The hypermedia CME allows
individuals self-directed movement through content, thus providing
much greater freedom of choice and control over content for the
individual. Thi Hoffman and Novak (1996) defined the experience of
flow in a computer-mediated environment as a state which is:
1. characterized by a seamless sequence of responses facilitated by
2. intrinsically enjoyable;
3. accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness; and
4. self-reinforcing. (p. 57).
Novak, Hoffman, and Yung (2000) further developed this conceptual
model and derived a structural model supported by large-scale survey
data. Evidence was also found to support the notion that flow can be
enhanced (made subjectively more intense) by interactivity and
telepresence (Steuer, 1992; Tamborini, 2000). Key factors in this
model are self-directed movement through content, seamless
interactivity, and telepresence. These characteristics also describe
video games and provide a theoretical basis for applying flow to an
examination of the enjoyment of video games.
Flow and Video Game Enjoyment
As Sherry (2004) indicated, video games fit Csikszentmihalyi's
description of activities that are particularly good at promoting the
creation of a flow state. These activities are characterized as: (1)
having concrete goals with manageable rules; (2) making it possible
to adjust opportunities for action to fit one's capabilities; (3)
providing clear information or feedback on performance; and (4)
screening out distraction and making concentration possible
First, video games present players with concrete goals and
manageable rules. Games often feature discrete levels or puzzles
which have a definite beginning and end. The completion of a
particular level or scenario serves as a milestone goal within the
overall structure of the game. Games without discrete levels, such as
some role-playing games, usually feature desired items, such as more
powerful weaponry or artifacts, which can be obtained by acquiring a
certain number of points or virtual treasures. The achievement of
these goals occurs under rules known to govern the virtual environment.
Second, video games offer the possibility of adjusting opportunities
for action to fit players' capabilities. Many video games offer
varying skill settings, or levels of difficulty. The classic
first-person shooter Quake, for example, offers players "Easy,"
"Medium," "Hard," and the hidden "Nightmare" difficulty settings. At
each higher level of difficulty, players are faced with greater
numbers of enemies that are also individually harder to kill. Many
games also offer competition against other players of varying skill levels.
Third, video games provide a great deal of feedback on performance.
Most games feature some type of point-accounting scheme in which
players are given a constant indicator of overall performance. The
completion of levels or the defeat of particular enemies also
provides information on performance by indicating that players have
completed a certain portion of the game. In many real-time strategy
games, such as the popular Age of Empires series, players are
presented with a running tally of their accumulated resources, and
players can compare their running scores with their opponents' scores.
Finally, video games screen out distraction (or real life) and make
concentration possible by presenting players with a variety of
visual, auditory, and tactile information. Colorful graphics,
realistic sound effects, and music provide players with more
attention-grabbing stimuli than most real-life environments can
provide. Because motion, loud sounds, and voices make demands on
players' cognitive resources through orienting response mechanisms,
video games can easily attract players' attention. With arousing
content that requires consistent attention and controlled action for
success, video games can then hold players' captured attention.
As Ghani and Deshpande (1994) found, challenge and the sense of
being in control were key factors in the experience of flow during
computer use. Grodal (2000) has pointed out that control is an
element that sets video games apart from other entertainment media.
Video game users must allocate a great deal of attention to a game
during use. Not only are users given control over actions by
characters within the games—users also manipulate the sensory input
provided by the games. For example, the users of many video games
manipulate the point of view displayed on screen and the selection of
sound effects and music that will be available. In general, film and
television content provide the viewer with only one possible point of view.
Repeated playing of the same game can further enhance an
individual's sense of control by reinforcing the nonlinear nature of
video games versus other media content (Grodal, 2003). Each time an
individual plays the same game, he or she can see the effects of
making different choices. The individual's actions alter the progress
of the game, reinforcing the individual's experience of being in
control of the environment. This sense of being in control is
characteristic of the flow state, especially when using interactive
media (Ghani & Deshpande, 1994; Novak et al., 2000).
Because the flow state is dependent on a match between relatively
high levels of challenge and skill, video games that present little
challenge will be enjoyed by relatively few individuals, and
individuals with limited skills will enjoy relatively few games.
Whereas Novak et al. (2000) specified attributes of media content
conducive to flow (i.e. the challenge presented by the content), this
represents only one half of flow's necessary predicates. The other
half is the individual's level of skill he or she can bring to bear
on the content. If the level of skill is low, challenging content
will induce only anxiety and frustration. When the level of skill is
high, however, flow, and enjoyment, may result. Skill levels for
video games are largely the result of individual differences, and so
any flow-centered model of video game enjoyment must take individual
differences into account.
Ellis, Voelkl, and Morris (1994) have previously proposed that
individual differences be included in measurements of flow in other
areas, based on Csikszentmihalyi's observation that some individuals
seem more adept at inducing flow states. There may in fact be an
autotelic personality trait. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990),
individuals subject to attentional control disorders or stimulus
overinclusion may be less able to achieve flow because flow requires
focused attention and the screening out of distractions. Also,
individuals who are excessively self-conscious may be less able to
achieve flow because they are unable to fully engage in an activity
without concern over what others may think of their actions.
On the other hand, some individuals seem possessed of
"nonself-conscious individualism" (Logan, 1985, 1988), which enables
them to engage in intrinsically-enjoyable activities without concern
for others' opinions. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) also noted that
individuals who need fewer external cues to represent reality in
consciousness may be better at achieving flow.
Other individual differences include individuals' cognitive
abilities. Video games make greater cognitive processing demands than
television viewing. Television viewing, for example, is largely a
matter of processing visual and auditory information from a
third-person perspective. Video games, on the other hand, often
require players to remember the location of various items within a
three-dimensional environment. This and similar tasks make greater
demands on an individual's cognitive processing system. Sherry (2004)
looked specifically at sex differences in video game play and
enjoyment, but the abilities that he lists are individual, rather
than gender-dependent, traits. Eight specific skills Sherry posited
as being important for gaming are: spatial rotation, color memory,
disembedding, field independent spatial perception, object location
memory, targeting, verbal fluency, and verbal memory. Although these
abilities do vary somewhat according to gender, as individual
difference traits they could be predictors of flow and video game enjoyment.
Because many of the most popular games require navigation through
virtual three-dimensional spaces, spatial rotation ability can be a
key skill in successfully playing a game. When individuals are unable
to picture where they (their avatars) are in a game environment,
completing the game may be more difficult than their skills can
manage. Because there is a mismatch between skill level and
challenge, flow (and its accompanying enjoyment) is inhibited.
Therefore, a flow model of video game enjoyment would predict that
greater spatial rotation ability will correlate with greater flow,
and thus enjoyment, experienced while playing video games featuring a
Object location memory is another skill of great importance for most
video games. Often, power-ups or other objects are helpful or even
required for successful completion of a game or a level within a
game. Players who have difficulty remembering where particular
objects (or places, such as doors, to use those objects) are located
in a given game may find themselves frustrated. Therefore, the
model's second prediction is that greater object location ability
will correlate with greater flow, and thus enjoyment, experienced
while playing video games.
Likewise, many games make demands on individuals' targeting ability.
Sports games, shooters, some fighters, and other games require
players to be able to figure the trajectory of some type of
projectile, be it a ball, a bullet, or a missile. Individuals who
cannot target proficiently may find themselves frustrated over
repeated failures to beat an opponent or game level. Therefore, the
model predicts that greater targeting ability will correlate with
greater flow and enjoyment experienced will playing video games.
Similarly, other skills mentioned by Sherry (2004) (color memory,
disembedding, field independent spatial perception, verbal fluency,
and verbal memory) are important in the stimulation of flow through
playing video games. In addition to these visual and verbal cognitive
abilities, other abilities may enhance or limit an individual's
enjoyment of video games. Because video games require hand-eye
coordination, fine motor skills are also an important factor in an
individual's overall ability to enter flow and obtain enjoyment from
video games. Being able to visualize where a virtual ball should be
thrown or where a target should be shot is a necessary, but not
sufficient, factor in being able to put the ball or the bullet where
it needs to go. The individual must also be able to manipulate the
controls (joystick, gamepad, keyboard, mouse, flight stick, etc.)
competently to direct the action toward the visualized location.
Other factors undoubtedly contribute to the enjoyment of video
games. Social interaction centered around games, and appreciation of
the aesthetic features of games, for example, may also contribute to
enjoyment. However, a great deal of research indicates that
individuals do derive a great deal of enjoyment from flow-stimulating
activities, and video games fit the description of a flow-stimulating
activity. This model proposes that the creation of a flow state is
the primary manner in which individuals derive enjoyment from video games.
As Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990;
Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989) have found, many individuals engage
in many daily activities that provide few opportunities for flow to
occur. Video games, on the other hand, present individuals with
opportunities to be challenged during day-to-day life. When
individuals play video games, as active media consumers they evaluate
whether the games are challenging. These individuals also evaluate
their relative level of skill. Part of this evaluation is dependent
upon each individual's actual level of each skill mentioned
previously. However, this evaluation may also depend on the
individual's personality traits. Some individuals have greater
self-confidence and/or self-efficacy. Given the same relative level
of gaming skills, these individuals will perceive themselves as more
skillful than individuals with lower confidence in their own
abilities. In short, an individual's perceived level of skill is only
partly the result of that individual's measurable level of skill
(based on skills tests and game outcomes).
Thus, video game enjoyment depends on three primary factors: the
challenge represented by game content, the skill set each individual
brings to the game content, and personality traits that affect the
individual's perception of his or her level of skill. When challenge
and perceived skill are relatively high, individuals will be more
likely to experience flow. Enjoyment occurs as a byproduct of the flow state.
One of the foundational tenets of entertainment research has been
that experience stamps preference. If this is true for television,
films, and other more-established media, then it should hold true for
video games, as well. Individuals have the tendency to go back to
media fare they have previously associated with positive mood states.
With a medium such as the video game, which requires physical
practice for mastery, individuals who have obtained enjoyment from
the medium have actually increased their ability to enjoy more
complex and difficult games and levels within games. Prior success
should breed further success. Prior failure should cause individuals
to gravitate away from the ineffective media fare. The more
individuals play and enjoy video games, the more they can play and
enjoy video games.
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