Jenova Chen has been playing video games for 20 years, and he’s desperate to see something new: right now, he says, most games focus on stimulating players by inciting aggression. “I want to expand what a video game can be,” he says. So as a graduate student in interactive media at the University of Southern California, Chen looked to psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi’s theory of “flow,” which identifies a state of focus that people find enjoyable and fulfilling. Chen uses the theory’s principles to design games that offer just enough challenge–not so little that players become bored, not so much that they become anxious.
Chen’s first effort was FlOw, a Web-based “Zen game” in which players control a sea creature that swims, eats, and evolves. After graduating in 2006, Chen cofounded Thatgamecompany to continue his work. The company released a PlayStation 3 version of FlOw in 2007; it has become one of the most downloaded games on the PlayStation Network. The next game, Flower, will be released later this year. By going with the flow, Chen may help video games reach a whole new audience. –Erica Naone