How difficulty affects player engagement in digital games

Author: Travis Kowlessar

Kowlessar, Travis, 2020 How difficulty affects player engagement in digital games, Flinders University, College of Science and Engineering

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It is anecdotally known that game difficulty plays a significant role in determining player engagement with digital games, yet no consensus has yet been reached on the exact nature of this relationship. Scholars investigating this link typically focus their studies around already established psychology research in broader theories investigating intrinsic human motivation. The psychology field’s ‘Theory of Flow’ is the currently accepted standard by which this relationship is investigated, yet the exact nuances of this association require considerable future research. This study proposes an experimental approach which can be utilized to investigate this relationship directly, providing valuable insight into this important


A video game was created for this purpose, which tracked gameplay metrics, player demographic variable data and game engagement data. This data was analysed and investigated to determine this experiment approaches ability to discover the exact nature of the relationships therein. This study also provides some tentative discoveries into which demographic variables may be integral in deciding a player’s propensity to be engaged with a digital game.

With a stronger understanding of which attributes contribute to a player’s enjoyment and engagement with a digital game, developers will be able to produce higher quality products and capitalize on these relationships. This research informs future work to utilize an experimental approach like that proposed in this study. This approach can be used to determine the specifics of how difficulty affects player engagement in digital games, and how game developers can enhance the enjoyment and longevity of their products.

Keywords: Challenge Level; Cognitive Evaluation Theory; Digital Games; Difficulty; Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment; Flow states; Game engagement; Player engagement; Self Determination Theory; Video Game Design; Video Game Difficulty; Theory of Flow

Subject: Computer Science thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2020
School: College of Science and Engineering
Supervisor: Dr Brett Wilkinson