Neural contributions to flow experience during video game playing

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Video games are an exciting part of new media. Although game play has been intensively studied, the underlying neurobiology is still poorly understood. Flow theory is a well-established model developed to describe subjective game experience. In 13 healthy male subjects, we acquired fMRI data during free play of a video game and analyzed brain activity based on the game content. In accordance with flow theory, we extracted the following factors from the game content: (i) balance between ability and challenge; (ii) concentration and focus; (iii) direct feedback of action results; (iv) clear goals; and (v) control over the situation/activity. We suggest that flow is characterized by specific neural activation patterns and that the latter can be assessed—at least partially—by content factors contributing to the emergence of flow. Each of the content factors was characterized by specific and distinguishable brain activation patterns, encompassing reward-related midbrain structures, as well as cognitive and sensorimotor networks. The activation of sensory and motor networks in the conjunction analyses underpinned the central role of simulation for flow experience. Flow factors can be validated with functional brain imaging which can improve the understanding of human emotions and motivational processes during media entertainment.

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