The purpose of this research is to explore, define, and test the efficacy of the psychological construct of engagement as a predictor of performance and affect in videogames and online training (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). However its use as a means of defining user experience in online environments has often been confounded with related concepts such as self-efficacy, motivation, flow and presence (c.f., Faiola, Newlon, Pfaff, & Smyslova, 2012). Similarly, it has also been recognized that how engagement is experienced by the user, measured, and interpreted may also vary between different computer-based tasks (Attfield, Kazai, Lalmas, & Piwowarski, 2011). For example, engagement has been examined in areas ranging from online-shopping (O'Brien & Toms, 2008), to online-learning (Chen, Lambert, & Guidry, 2010), to employee engagement (Macey & Schneider, 2008). Despite these variations, researchers agree that engagement is a positive contributor to online experiences and a worthwhile psychological construct to examine (e.g., Brockmyer et al., 2009; Whitton, 2011). Rather than attempt to create a single, overarching definition of engagement the research reported here narrows the scope of engagement to its theoretical importance and application in the synergistic area of videogames and game-based training—an area where high engagement is thought to be of the utmost importance (McGinnis, Bustard, Black, & Charles, 2008; Richardson & Newby, 2006; Whitton, 2011).
Engagement, as it relates to game-based learning, has been associated with Flow Theory (FT) (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). FT’s (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988) principles have high face-validity and have proven to be one of more thorough and practical frameworks from which to begin the study of videogame behavior and engagement (O'Brien & Toms, 2008; Pavlas, Heyne, Bedwell, Lazzara, & Salas, 2010). O’Brien & Toms (2008) suggest that engagement may share some attributes with flow, such as focused attention, feedback, control, activity orientation (i.e., interactivity), and intrinsic motivation. FT helps capture the key concept of achievable challenge as a desirable, engaging element of computer-based tasks (Chanel, Rebetez, Bétrancourt, & Pun, 2008; Skelly, Fries, Linnett, Nass, & Reeves, 1994). FT is equally useful at linking cognitive effort with affective outcomes. Being in the flow can be thought of as an optimal experience that includes feelings of exhilaration and deep enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The resulting positive affect provides a positive feedback loop for maximal cognitive effort. People in the flow are intrinsically motivated and commonly report focused concentration and feelings of control (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).