Volume 4, Issue 2. DOI: 10.1037/tmb0000108
Eudaimonia (i.e., orienting toward or experiencing meaning, virtue, personal growth, and other worthwhile aspects of life) has recently received a great deal of academic interest in the field of media entertainment, especially for the medium of digital games. While a recent scoping review has improved the conceptual clarity on what constitutes eudaimonia in a gaming context, a broader overview synthesizing the literature on eudaimonia in digital games and identifying important research gaps of this emergent field is still lacking. Therefore, we conducted a literature review of 165 records, synthesizing conceptual, game, and theoretical information of the included studies as well as examining which antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences the studies identified. We found a broad range of established and less studied eudaimonic concepts in the reviewed studies, a main focus on eudaimonic experiences overshadowing the interest in eudaimonic motives, and a variety of game types that can elicit eudaimonia. The review also reveals a lack of theoretical frameworks related to both eudaimonia in general and eudaimonia in a gaming context. Finally, the antecedents and outcomes related to eudaimonia were mostly connected to in-game or entertainment situations, neglecting the real-world impact these experiences might have. Contributions and a research agenda containing future research suggestions are further discussed.
Keywords: digital games, eudaimonia, literature review, media entertainment, positive media psychology
Disclosures: The authors have no conflicts of interest with this research.
Data Availability: All coding materials and data analysis files for this project are made available at https://osf.io/fhxqw/. This article has not been published in a journal and has not yet been presented at a scientific conference.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Rowan Daneels, Department of Communication Studies, University of Antwerp, Sint Jacobstraat 2, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium. Email: [email protected]
Digital entertainment games have seemingly evolved from offering users pleasure and enjoyment (e.g., Sherry, 2004) toward a medium that allows players to also experience deeper, thought-provoking, and more emotionally complex moments (Chesler, 2021; Hemenover & Bowman, 2018). For instance, digital games can lead to heartwarming or elevating feelings when witnessing acts of kindness or altruism (Daneels et al., 2020). Other scholars have found that games can evoke feelings of guilt (Grizzard et al., 2014) or can inspire a sense of awe in players (Possler et al., 2021).
Games researchers are increasingly examining games not only just as “fun machines” offering enjoyable moments, but also as vessels for more complex affective and cognitive player reactions that are often categorized under the overarching concept of eudaimonia (Daneels et al., 2020; Klimmt & Possler, 2019; Oliver et al., 2016). Entertainment research (Vorderer & Reinecke, 2015) has proposed a dual-mode conceptualization of hedonic (i.e., “the subjective experience of pleasure;” see Waterman, 2008, p. 235) and eudaimonic (i.e., exercising virtues and fully realizing our human nature; see Huta, 2017) entertainment to model both pleasurable and more profound responses to media entertainment like digital games. However, while hedonic reactions to media entertainment are often defined in terms of pleasure or enjoyment (e.g., Vorderer et al., 2004), less conceptual consensus has been reached regarding what reactions are eudaimonic in nature.
To come to a common conceptual language of eudaimonic gaming, Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021) conducted a scoping review of 83 records to examine which concepts regarding eudaimonia are being used in different research fields studying digital games (i.e., communication, media psychology, human–computer interaction [HCI] and game studies) and how these concepts are understood in the reviewed studies. They found four conceptual patterns regarding eudaimonic game experiences that span these different research fields: appreciation as an overarching, yet imprecise eudaimonic outcome; the interrelated experiences of meaning, being moved and (self-)reflection; socially connecting experiences; and less studied experiences such as nostalgia.
“Appreciation,” as “an experiential state that is characterized by the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience” (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, p. 76), was found as an overarching outcome concept of eudaimonic experiences such as meaningfulness, being emotionally moved, and self-reflection. However, since appreciation is frequently being used interchangeably with concepts such as “eudaimonia” and “meaning,” or as a broad notion distinct from hedonic experiences (Kashdan et al., 2008), some confusion regarding the precise position of appreciation compared to other eudaimonic experiences still remains. Next to this, from the aforementioned definition of appreciation stem three important eudaimonic experiences that might be interrelated, but are conceptually distinct: “meaningful experiences,” “emotionally moving and challenging experiences,” and “self-reflective experiences.” Meaning and meaningful experiences have been used by scholars in different fields, all seemingly arguing that this type of experience relates to players making connections between in-game aspects and “out-of-game” personally relevant elements from their own lives. For instance, Arbeau et al. (2020) stated that meaningful game experiences clarify real-life moments by providing a deeper insight into daily situations. Next to this, HCI researchers have recently coined the term “emotionally impactful game experiences” (Denisova et al., 2021; p. 1) as an overarching concept for emotionally moving, discomforting, and challenging experiences characterized by players’ struggle with complex and intense emotional in-game elements (Bopp et al., 2016, 2018). Furthermore, “reflective experiences” (i.e., where players contemplate and try to understand themselves based on in-game elements) have also been studied in different fields, including HCI (e.g., Mekler et al., 2018). Both emotionally impactful and reflective experiences seem to be conceptually related to, but not always conceptualized as, eudaimonia in existing HCI research. Beyond this, social game experiences that provide players with a sense of connection and bonding with other players (e.g., Colder Carras et al., 2018) or other in-game characters (e.g., Bowman et al., 2016) might be unique to digital games and seemingly exist as eudaimonic experiences next to meaningful or reflective experiences. However, not all social game moments are experienced as eudaimonic by players. As such, what exactly distinguishes eudaimonic from noneudaimonic social gaming experiences (if such a distinction should exist) has received scant attention in eudaimonic gaming research. Finally, there are several other eudaimonia-related concepts that received little academic attention, including experiences such as “nostalgia” (i.e., an emotional and cognitive state where players long for the past due to fond and bittersweet recollections of close others and/or life events; Wulf et al., 2020), “self-transcendence” (i.e., a specific type of eudaimonic experience characterized by “interconnectedness, human virtue and altruistic motivations, and spirituality”; see Oliver et al., 2018, p. 384), and “elevation” (i.e., a heartwarming emotional experience in response to acts of kindness and altruism, for example; Daneels et al., 2020).
Prior systematic reviews have focused on digital game experiences (Law et al., 2018), including engagement (Boyle et al., 2012) and the hedonic experience of enjoyment (Mekler et al., 2014). Daneels, Bowman, et al.’s (2021) scoping review opened up the opportunity to systematically review the current eudaimonic gaming literature, as it provided a clear conceptual overview of which game entertainment experiences are understood and defined as eudaimonic needed to clearly delineate the boundaries of eudaimonic gaming research. The current literature review, therefore, serves as a follow-up of their scoping review, building on their insights to offer a broad synthesis of the current state of the field as well as to formulate concrete recommendations to shape a research agenda for future scholarship on this emergent topic. It differs from the Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021) review in two important ways: (a) while the scoping review aimed at establishing conceptual consensus regarding eudaimonic game experiences, the current review’s goal is to provide a broad synthesis of the eudaimonic gaming literature beyond just conceptual patterns, and (b) the current literature review includes not just a focus on eudaimonic experiences (as is the case for the scoping review), but reviews eudaimonic gaming more broadly, covering literature on motives, behaviors, and outcomes as well as experiences.
The current literature review on eudaimonia in digital games intends to reach two main research goals. First, we will summarize the existing (quantitative and qualitative) empirical studies and theoretical articles on eudaimonia and digital games, looking at, for instance, which types of games are being studied and which theoretical frameworks are being applied (Research Questions 1–3). Second, we will examine which antecedents (e.g., certain moods, such as boredom or stress, personal aspects, such as age) and which outcomes (e.g., well-being, prosocial, or moral behavior) of eudaimonic game experiences have been studied before (Research Questions 4–5). Important to note here is that, due to the broad scope of the current literature review (i.e., focusing on conceptual, game and theoretical info as well as potential antecedents, and outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences) and the (unusually) large sample of articles (see Method section), the aim of this review is not to engage in-depth with the reviewed articles, but rather to provide an overview of the landscape of eudaimonic gaming research as well as to identify where more scholarship is needed. Therefore, the current review contributes to the budding scholarship on eudaimonic gaming by identifying key patterns and existing research gaps for future research to focus on. The open scholarship nature of our data (see Method section) serves as a good stepping stone for other researchers to dive into the data more extensively. The current review poses the following research questions:
Research Question 1: Which (types of) eudaimonic concepts are being studied in the reviewed records?
Research Question 2: Which games and types of games are being studied in the reviewed records?
Research Question 3: Which theoretical frameworks are being used in the reviewed records?
Research Question 4: Which antecedents of eudaimonic experiences are being studied in the reviewed records?
Research Question 5: Which outcomes of eudaimonic experiences are being studied in the reviewed records?
We reviewed the current literature on eudaimonia in digital games research. Instead of following one specific search procedure, we combined two methods to attain a complete overview of the literature: a forward chaining search (i.e., searching through records that cited a predefined anchor article; see Webster & Watson, 2002) and a systematic search following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses 2020 guidelines for systematic reviews (Page et al., 2021). All method materials and data files—including the review protocol—are openly available online at https://osf.io/fhxqw/ (Daneels et al., 2022).
We searched the literature in three different ways (see the search and screening flowchart in Figure 1). First, we included the final sample from the recent scoping review on eudaimonic concepts in digital games research by Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021), found through their Open Science Framework (OSF) space (https://osf.io/q7kdv/). They conducted a forward chaining search using a single anchor article (i.e., Oliver et al., 2016; see Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021 for more info on why this article was chosen) instead of a search with specific keywords, since a clear conceptual understanding of eudaimonia in games research was lacking before the scoping review and many relevant records do not mention the keyword “eudaimonia” explicitly (e.g., Bopp et al., 2016). Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021) performed their search using the “cited by” feature in Google Scholar, as this platform also includes conference articles (e.g., the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems [CHI] and CHI Play conference as the main publication venues for HCI researchers) in the search process. After a first screening procedure (see Screening section), they conducted a second and third forward chaining search based on the included records from the first and second search, respectively.
Second, since eudaimonia is an emergent research avenue within digital games research and Daneels, Bowman, et al.’s (2021) literature search was conducted in August 2020, we performed an additional forward chaining search starting from their final sample of 83 records to gather recent relevant literature for the literature review. As their original scoping review already screened the literature predating August 2020, we only considered (nonduplicate) records from 2020 and 2021 for this additional iteration of the forward search. We conducted this literature search in December 2021, following the same search and selection procedure as the original scoping review.
Third, we intended to conduct a search with the most commonly used eudaimonic concepts in digital games research (e.g., appreciation, meaning, reflection; see Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021) as keywords. However, this resulted in tens of thousands hits, making it not feasible to cover all these concepts. Thus, we decided to perform a Boolean search using the terms “game*” and the overarching concept of “eudaimoni*.” The following academic databases, selected based on the previously mentioned research fields that focus on eudaimonic gaming, were searched: EBSCO (specifically, the Communication & Mass Media Complete and Communication Abstracts databases), APA (specifically, APA PsychInfo), JSTOR, Scopus and ScienceDirect, Web of Science (specifically, the Core Collection [1955–present]), and ProQuest (specifically, ERIC or the Education Resource Information Center database). Next to this, we also searched online libraries from academic publishers (i.e., SAGE Journals Online, Wiley Online Library, and Taylor & Francis Online) and conference proceedings (i.e., Association of Computing Machinery Digital Library for conferences such as CHI, CHI PLAY, and Foundations of Digital Games or FDG; DiGRA or Digital Games Research Association conference and ToDiGRA; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Games conferences). We did not set any limit on the time frame of publications. All citations were uploaded in Covidence, a software platform specifically designed for systematic reviews which allows researchers to upload vast amounts of citations as well as automatically remove any duplicate records (Kellermeyer et al., 2018). Duplicate records already present in the first (i.e., Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021) or the second pool of literature (i.e., the additional forward chaining search) were removed before the screening procedure. This search was also conducted in December 2021.
The second and third pool of literature mentioned in the search procedure went through the same screening method as the first pool, based on the screening procedure and inclusion criteria used in Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021). After collecting the records, the lead author conducted a first screening based on title and abstract browsing. We included records based on four criteria: (a) records dealing with digital games or interactive game narratives, excluding records on, for instance, analog games, gamification, and virtual reality technology not focused on games; (b) records published in English; (c) records that are peer-reviewed, including journal articles, book chapters, and conference articles or extended abstracts, but excluding dissertations, preprints, books, and book reviews; and (d) records where the full texts were available. This first screening resulted in 563 remaining records for the original scoping review, 225 records for the additional forward search, and 105 records for the systematic search.
In a next phase, the lead author conducted a more rigorous second screening of the remaining records of the second and third literature pool (n = 330) to determine which records were related to eudaimonia, as the first pool already underwent this screening step in the original scoping review. We screened the full texts of these records, using keywords such as “meaningfulness,” “growth,” and “appreciation” mentioned in the inclusion criteria to systematically process all of the literature. An overview of the inclusion/exclusion criteria used for this second screening phase can be found in the screening guidelines on OSF.
After this second screening, we conducted an interrater reliability analysis where a second rater (i.e., an undergrad student familiar with the topic of eudaimonic entertainment) screened a 10% (n = 33 records; see Lombard et al., 2010) random set of the included records from the second (n = 225) and third literature pool (n = 105) combined. The analysis revealed an 82% rater agreement and a Cohen’s κ value of .62, indicating a moderate to substantial agreement between both raters (McHugh, 2012). Disagreements (n = 6 records, or 18%) were discussed between the two raters and resolved by the lead author.
The second screening resulted in 83 remaining records for the original scoping review (see Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021), 38 records for the additional forward search, and 44 records for the systematic search. In total, the final sample for our current literature review consists of 165 records (see Figure 1).
In order to extract data from our final sample of included records and answer our research questions, we used a separate codebook document. Based on this codebook, we identified bibliographical info, the (types of) studied eudaimonic concepts, the studied (types of) games, theoretical frameworks, methodological info,1 and potential antecedents and outcomes of the eudaimonic concepts in the included records (see Table S1 in the Supplemental Materials). Data coding was documented in separate data files based on the codebook. After coding, the extracted information was imported to an Statistical Package for the Social Sciences file for final data analysis (i.e., descriptive statistics). Several items, such as theoretical frameworks, studied game (type), as well as antecedents and outcomes, were openly coded in separate spreadsheets.
Similar to the screening procedure above, we checked for interrater reliability in this phase (also see Table S1). The same second rater as in the screening process rated a 10% (n = 17 records; see Lombard et al., 2010) random set of the final sample of records. The interrater reliability was calculated for each variable separately. The agreement percentage varied between a minimum of 82.4% (n = 3 disagreements) and 100%, with a mean agreement percentage of 94.7%, for all variables except the “field of study” variable (58.8%; n = 7 disagreements), which we did not report in the Results section. Cohen’s κ ranged from .63 to 1.00, with a mean κ value of .88, indicating a strong agreement between the two raters (McHugh, 2012). Other disagreements besides the “field of study” variable were discussed between the two raters and resolved by the lead author.
The literature review consisted of 165 articles, including a total of 190 separate studies as several records consisted of multiple studies. The full list of included studies as well as additional results (e.g., on the field of study, specific journals, and conference proceedings of these studies) can be found on https://osf.io/fhxqw/ (Daneels et al., 2022). The tables below include the most frequently occurring concepts in the reviewed studies, while the full list of concepts for each research question can be found on the OSF page.
Regarding publication type, just over half of the records were journal articles (n = 88; 53.3%) and almost one third were conference articles (n = 53; 32.1%). Fifteen records were book chapters (9.1%) and nine records were conference extended abstracts (5.5%). Of the 190 studies, we identified 153 empirical studies (80.5%) and 37 articles (19.5%) without any empirical data collection, the latter mainly including theoretical articles and literature overviews.
As noted before, the study of eudaimonia in digital games research has only recently gained scholarly interest. This is reflected in the current review’s findings (see Figure 2). Without any time restrictions in the search procedure, we see that the first articles implementing eudaimonic concepts are published in 2010–2011. However, the rise of eudaimonic game research did not start until 2015–2016 with, for example, the influential article by Oliver et al. (2016). The surge of research did come very recently though, with over half of the records published in 2020–2021 (n = 89; 53.9%).
In this section, we coded how often eudaimonic concepts were used in the included studies (n = 190). We used Huta and Waterman’s (2014) distinction of eudaimonia (i.e., as motives, behaviors, experiences, and outcomes) to categorize a total of 332 identified eudaimonic concepts. Experiences were the most frequently studied type of eudaimonic concept, accounting for over 70%. Zooming in on specific concepts, meaningful, (self-)reflective, and socially connecting experiences with other players as well as the outcome of appreciation has been studied most often. Table 1 provides an example of different eudaimonic concepts and how frequently they occurred. For the full list of eudaimonic concepts identified in the review, see the overviewing numbers document on OSF.
Overview of Identified (Types of) Eudaimonic Concepts
Frequency of occurrence
Eudaimonic game motives
Need for insight
Connectedness other players
Connectedness other game characters
Connectedness places (sense of place)
Another aim of the literature review was to identify which games were studied most often related to eudaimonia. First, we coded on what level specific studies (n = 190) included digital games. Mostly, the reviewed studies used specific games or game experiences to examine eudaimonia (n = 121; 63.7%), while a decent amount investigated eudaimonia related to games in general (n = 54; 28.4%). Only a handful of studies looked at eudaimonia in specific types of games such as serious games (n = 12; 6.3%).
Second, we examined which game types and which specific games (series) were included most often in the reviewed studies (n = 190). Role-playing games (RPGs), first-person shooters, serious, and action-adventure games were mostly included in eudaimonic gaming research, while games from the Fallout, The Witcher, and Mass Effect series as well as Pokémon GO were studied most often. Table 2 includes a brief overview of the most frequently studied types of games and specific games as well as their frequency of occurrence. For the full open coding of game types and specific games, see OSF.
Overview of Type of Games and Specific Game Examples
Types of games
Frequency of occurrence
Frequency of occurrence
Role-playing games (RPG)
First-person shooters (FPS)
The Witcher series
Mass Effect series
Final Fantasy series
Call of Duty/Elder Scrolls/BioShock series
Augmented and virtual reality games
Massively multiplayer online role-playing game
To explore how theoretically grounded research on eudaimonia and digital games is, we coded which theoretical frameworks were frequently used (see Table 3). Self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) was used most often in the reviewed eudaimonic gaming studies, next to several other approaches that were used less frequently, including the positive technologies framework (Riva et al., 2012), flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), and moral foundations theory (Haidt & Joseph, 2004). However, more than half of the studies in the literature review did not explicitly mention any theoretical framework (n = 106; 55.8%). For the full open coding of theoretical frameworks used in the records, see OSF.
Overview of Theoretical Frameworks
Theoretical frameworks (citation)
Frequency of occurrence
Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000)
Integrated model of player experiences (Elson et al., 2014)
Positive technologies framework (Riva et al., 2012)
Dualistic model of passion (Vallerand et al., 2003)
Mechanics, dynamics, and esthetics framework (Hunicke et al., 2004)
Flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975)
Technology acceptance model (Davis, 1989)
Moral foundations theory (Haidt & Joseph, 2004)
Model of intuitive morality and exemplars (Tamborini, 2011)
The final section of the codebook dealt with information regarding antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonic experiences identified in the review. Table 4 (antecedents) and Table 5 (outcomes) contain an overview of the different types of identified antecedents/outcomes, with several examples and how frequently they were studied in the reviewed sample. For the full open coding and overview of the antecedents and outcomes, see OSF.
Regarding antecedents, the type that was mentioned the most were gaming-related antecedents, such as the narrative, mechanics, audiovisuals, and game experiences, including presence, immersion, and demanding game experiences. Other types of antecedents were dispositional such as gender, emotional antecedents like meaningful affect, and the developmental antecedent of age.
Regarding outcomes, outcomes related to the game itself, either in the form of how entertained players were (i.e., enjoyment and appreciation) or how engaged and satisfied they were with game, were identified most frequently. Next to this, prosocial outcomes (e.g., donating or helping in-game) and well-being were also studied on occasion, while antisocial (e.g., online harassment and toxicity) and moral outcomes (e.g., moral decision-making and moral development) have not been studied yet in the reviewed sample.
Overview of Antecedents
Type of antecedent and examples
Frequency of occurrence
Audiovisuals (graphics and soundtrack)
Prior game experiences
Need satisfaction (SDT)
Positive, negative, and meaningful affect
Meaningfulness of media content
Moral choices, decisions, and challenges
Geographical proximity (for news games)
Social anxiety/social pressure
Overview of Outcomes
Type of outcome and examples
Frequency of occurrence
Helping behavior in-game
Harmonious and obsessive passion
Interest in science, technology, engineering, and math education
The current literature review shows that research on eudaimonia and digital games is thriving, with 165 different records dealing with the topic at hand. Game scholars only started to examine eudaimonia-related ideas a little more than a decade ago, but the subject has since been studied in a broad range of research fields including HCI, psychology, game studies, and communication/social sciences, acknowledging the interdisciplinary importance of the study of eudaimonia and games.
Studies have mainly dealt with eudaimonia in terms of meaning and meaningful experiences in the eudaimonic sense of the concept (i.e., experiences that connect in-game moments with players’ real-world activities; Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021), appreciation of game-related aspects as the eudaimonic outcome equivalent to the hedonic outcome of enjoyment, personal reflection and reflection on societal issues, and bonding with other people or players. However, the present review also found other concepts related to the notion of eudaimonia. For example, the idea of personal growth or change as the realization of one’s best self has previously been identified as an important eudaimonic motive within positive psychology (Huta, 2016; Peterson et al., 2005) but received no academic interest within research on digital games according to the scoping review by Daneels, Bowman, et al. (2021). Our current review did find some studies discussing the potential to experience personal growth through games. For instance, Iacovides and Mekler (2019) found that games can lead to personal change and growth in times of difficulty. By providing opportunities where players can feel competent and gain motivation, games allow transferring these aspects to other places in a player’s real-life environment.
Next to this, a decent amount of research has shown that digital games can potentially evoke eudaimonic experiences when emotionally connecting to either other people (e.g., Colder Carras et al., 2018) or in-game characters (e.g., Bowman et al., 2016). However, very recent scholarship has found that players can also have emotional connections to places, which can be deemed as eudaimonic. Bowman et al. (2020) introduced the concept of “sense of place” to digital games research as the ability of players to create affective familiarity or emotional connections with actual physical locations (i.e., the U.S. state of West Virginia) through gaming worlds (in here, Fallout 76). More recent work by Robinson and Bowman (2022) showed that players could also experience a sense of place in virtual game worlds, in their case the land of Azeroth from the remastered Classic version of the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, connecting this to the eudaimonic experience of nostalgia. More research is needed on how these and other eudaimonic experiences can be elicited by games as well as how they relate to each other.
Overall, the present review showed that studies on eudaimonic gaming have largely focused on specific experiences people have during or right after playing digital games. Indeed, over 70% of the identified eudaimonic concepts can be linked to experiences, leaving a research gap open to study eudaimonic notions of both orientations/motives and functioning/outcomes (cf. Huta & Waterman, 2014).
We found that eudaimonic motives have been neglected for the most part in games research, which is remarkable given the broad range of scholarship on gaming motives (e.g., De Grove et al., 2016; Sherry et al., 2006; Yee, 2006). The reviewed articles dealing with eudaimonic motives showed a scattered understanding of which eudaimonic experiences appeal to players and guide them in their decision to play specific games. Some studies indicated that players’ needs for relatedness with other players and their need to gain insight into existential issues such as death or freedom relate significantly to the notion of eudaimonia (Oliver et al., 2016; Rigby & Ryan, 2017), while others found that players’ eudaimonia-related needs such as the need for religion and faith (Laato & Rauti, 2021) or the need for personal growth and self-actualization (Colder Carras et al., 2021) can also be satisfied by playing digital games. Finally, the eudaimonic experience of nostalgia is the only concept that has been studied as a eudaimonic game motive, mostly in the context of playing Pokémon GO (e.g., Wulf & Baldwin, 2020). While these initial results indicate that players might be eudaimonically motivated to play digital games, much is still unclear regarding, for example, which specific experiences offer the strongest motivational appeal to players and which game types players with eudaimonic reasons tend to select. More fine-grained study on the topic of eudaimonic gaming motives is therefore needed.
Furthermore, eudaimonic outcomes received some attention in games research, mainly in discussing not only the eudaimonic appreciation of game content and experiences (e.g., Possler et al., 2020; Shaza et al., 2021; Steinemann et al., 2015) but also via the notion of “eudaimonic well-being” as an outcome of several different eudaimonic game experiences such as meaning, nostalgia, and social connectedness (e.g., Hui et al., 2019; Seaborn et al., 2020; Tyack & Wyeth, 2021).
The empirical studies within the current review focused on a broad range of games and types of games when investigating eudaimonia. One of the more popular game types were single-player RPGs such as games in The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Final Fantasy series. The connection between eudaimonia and RPGs is not surprising, given the genre’s specific set of characteristics: (a) the ability to provide players the freedom to create, customize, and develop skills and abilities with their playable character (which could instigate self-expression, identity experimenting, personal growth, and other eudaimonia-related aspects from positive psychology; Huta & Ryan, 2010), (b) a strong (emotional) narrative players can immerse themselves in, and (c) a free-to-explore open world (Hitchens & Drachen, 2009; Zagal & Deterding, 2018).
Beyond RPGs, studies on eudaimonia also focused on serious games with educational or health purposes. Previous scholarship has identified this type of game as a positive technology that can lead to eudaimonic experiences like personal growth or finding purpose in life as well as eudaimonic well-being (Argenton et al., 2016). Furthermore, action-adventure games such as The Last of Us were also studied often in relation to eudaimonia, which might be explained by their inclusion of emotional storylines that can lead to eudaimonic responses (e.g., Bopp et al., 2016; Kümpel & Unkel, 2017).
Despite the variety of games that were studied in the reviewed records, there are some less studied types of games, including sports or race games, platform games, and indie games. Especially the latter game type is surprising, given that prior research showed the importance of eudaimonia-related emotional experiences to indie game developers (Denisova et al., 2021) and indie games are often related to more artistic, avant-garde narratives, mechanics, and audiovisual elements that can be linked to eudaimonia (Bopp et al., 2021). For example, the indie game Fragile Equilibrium portrays depression and anxiety through abstract, experiential game design in order to provoke emotional resonance which, in turn, builds appreciation and can lead to self-reflection as well as meaning and eudaimonic gratification (Phelps et al., 2020). This lack of focus on indie games might be caused by the lower popularity these games have, resulting in researchers either not knowing them or neglecting them to focus on more popular games that have a wider player base, and thus, more potential respondents for the study. So future research should investigate these less explored game types to determine whether they lead to similar eudaimonic motives, experiences, and outcomes currently identified in the literature.
Another focal point in the present review was to provide an overview of the theoretical frameworks that were used to study eudaimonia in digital games research. Compared to other theoretical models, the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) was utilized more often. This is unsurprising, given that this perspective (a) has been used extensively in games research to frame how games can satisfy players’ needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (e.g., Ryan et al., 2006; Tyack & Mekler, 2020) and (b) is grounded in eudaimonic psychology research (Vittersø, 2016) as a theoretical approach which assumes that people actively search for self-growth (cf. eudaimonia) and frames how satisfying the aforementioned needs can lead to people’s eudaimonic well-being. Some studies used specific theoretical perspectives linked to, for instance, morality such as the moral foundations theory (Haidt & Joseph, 2004) or game-specific models such as the integrated model of player experience (Elson et al., 2014). However, what was more surprising is the result that over half of the studies did not build on any existing theoretical framework. One potential explanation lies in the coding procedure for this specific variable: In order to be coded as having a theoretical framework, the study had to mention very explicitly which concrete model or framework they used. This implies that articles that followed more general theoretical foundations, for instance, on the broad distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic experiences without mentioning the dual-process model (Lewis et al., 2014) or articles that followed general theoretical assumptions unique to a certain research field did not get coded as having a theoretical framework. Therefore, some nuance is needed in interpreting the results on the theoretical frameworks, as our results indicate that while lots of studies do not use concrete theoretical frameworks, some could follow broader theoretical assumptions and are therefore not necessarily atheoretical.
The lack of using theoretical framework also implies that most studies did not use any theories specifically related to eudaimonia, besides only a handful based on frameworks such as positive technology (Riva et al., 2012), transformative reflection (Fleck & Fitzpatrick, 2010), or the dual-mode conceptualization of entertainment (Lewis et al., 2014; Vorderer & Reinecke, 2015). Very recently, the model of inspiring media (Oliver et al., 2021) synthesized existing research on inspiring media into a model containing five important aspects: (a) exposure to inspiring media; (b) message factors such as the content, format, and source; (c) specific responses or experiences like elevation, nostalgia, awe, and reflection; (d) affective/cognitive outcomes (e.g., caring/compassion and prejudice reduction), motivational/behavioral outcomes (e.g., altruism and charitability), and media behavior outcomes (e.g., social sharing and media creation); and (e) both personal and situational factors such as culture, gender, age, personality, and mood. Future eudaimonic gaming research should build on this comprehensive model to not only expand academic understanding on how game exposure results in specific eudaimonic responses and how these, in turn, lead to different outcomes but also to grasp how different personal and contextual elements factor into experiencing eudaimonia through gameplay.
Beyond this general model on eudaimonic media, to our knowledge, no theory exists that broadly combines eudaimonia to the specific and unique nature of digital games, besides Possler et al.’s (2018) specific focus on the eudaimonic experience of awe, attention and cognitive appraisal theories, and cognitive game demands. Existing studies on eudaimonia and digital games do not provide answers as to how different eudaimonic experiences are related to each other. For example, are personally meaningful experiences (i.e., connecting relevant in-game elements to real-world feelings) a prerequisite to having other eudaimonic experiences such as feeling emotionally moved or nostalgic? An integrated theoretical model would be necessary in organizing and outlining all of the identified eudaimonic concepts in digital games research. The aforementioned inspiring media model by Oliver et al. (2021) as well as Vorderer et al.’s (2004) model on enjoyment could serve as a good starting point to construct such a theoretical model.
Besides summarizing the existing research on eudaimonia and digital games, the second goal of this review was to identify the existing antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences. We found several different types of antecedents, for example, related to emotions, age, and morality. However, most antecedents were game-related, including aspects such as the game’s story, audiovisual elements, play frequency, and narrative-enhancing game mechanics (Bowman et al., 2020; Caro & Popovac, 2021; Daneels, Malliet, et al., 2021; Daneels et al., 2020; Kümpel & Unkel, 2017; Oliver et al., 2016, Possler & Klimmt, 2021). Other game-related antecedents included experiences often related to digital games, including narrative engagement (Daneels, Malliet, et al., 2021; Steinemann et al., 2017), spatial or social presence (Melzer & Holl, 2021; Robinson & Bowman, 2022), and immersion (Bopp et al., 2015; Ma et al., 2021).
One promising area of future research pertains to the game-related antecedent of game demands. The interactive or participatory nature of digital games is a property that makes digital games rather unique compared to other entertainment media (e.g., Vorderer, 2000). Digital games enable players to actively cocreate a game situation (Bowman, 2018), although this degree of freedom varies between different types of games as well as dynamically within one specific game. Few studies have looked at how the level of interactivity enables or hinders the creation of eudaimonic game experiences. A high level of interactivity can be understood as games being demanding (Bowman, 2018). These demands have been identified as being cognitive (i.e., making sense of the game), emotional (i.e., affective involvement in the game), physical, that is, mastering a game’s (input) mechanics, and/or social (i.e., social relations with game characters and other players) in nature. Because eudaimonia tends to require increased affective and cognitive effort (e.g., Oliver et al., 2018), the demanding nature might hinder the elicitation of eudaimonic experiences. For example, in their game analysis of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Daneels, Malliet, et al. (2021) found that players had less eudaimonic experiences compared to two other games because certain game mechanics obligated them to focus on collecting experience points (i.e., physical demand) instead of focusing on the game’s narrative. Also, Possler et al. (2018) suggested that players could experience awe only when enough cognitive resources were available and thus the game was not too cognitively demanding. However, game demands could also strengthen specific eudaimonic experiences, such as emotionally challenging moments in games (see, for instance, Bopp et al., 2018). Future scholarship could therefore examine which game demands are connected to and either hinder or strengthen certain eudaimonic experiences and outcomes. Furthermore, more insight into the influence of the level of interactivity on eudaimonic experiences, which is not only relevant for digital games, but for interactive eudaimonic entertainment media broadly (e.g., social media), is needed.
Finally, regarding outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences, we showed that the main focus of the current literature is focused on outcomes within the boundaries of the game itself: on (a) entertainment outcomes of hedonic enjoyment and eudaimonic appreciation and (b) game-related outcomes such as immersion and game satisfaction. Less research included outcomes related to real-world implications, such as prosocial intentions or behaviors (e.g., donating behavior or charitability; see Oliver et al., 2021) and players’ physical and psychological well-being. This is remarkable, given that nongaming eudaimonic research has extensively examined the effects of eudaimonic media exposure on prosocial outcomes such as altruism and helping behavior (Schnall et al., 2010) or on intergroup connectedness and prejudice reduction (Oliver et al., 2015) as well as on positive/eudaimonic well-being outcomes stemming from inspirational music (Ji et al., 2021) or watching meaningful online YouTube videos (Janicke et al., 2018). An explanation for this difference could lie in the relative novel focus of eudaimonia in games research, compared to eudaimonia in other forms of entertainment research.
Moreover, we found neither research looking at how eudaimonic game experiences impacted negative or antisocial outcomes such as online harassment or toxicity in game environments nor did the reviewed studies examine the effects on moral outcomes such as moral development. Prior research on the “dark side” of eudaimonic inspiration has showed that campaign communication of right-wing populist parties (Menke & Wulf, 2021) and Islamic extremist social media influencer (Frischlich, 2021) tend to use eudaimonic cues to elicit experiences such as nostalgia to support either populist claims or extremist propaganda. However, no research to date has looked at such forms of dark inspiration in the gaming context. Future research could fill these gaps in the gaming and eudaimonia literature in order to provide a more complete picture of the range of outcomes that eudaimonic game experiences can have.
The current literature review has two important limitations. First, although we attempted to cover the entirety of eudaimonic gaming research in different fields, not all studies that would fit the inclusion criteria were found (e.g., we missed a recent study on walking simulator games eliciting meaningful and reflective experiences; Ferland-Beauchemin et al., 2019). One particular reason for this is the practical approach of the search strategy: instead of using all the different eudaimonic concepts found in Daneels, Bowman, et al.’s (2021) scoping review, which resulted in tens of thousands of search hits, we opted for a more feasible approach by only looking at eudaimonia as a key word. Studies focusing on experiences that previously have been identified as being subsumed under the umbrella term of eudaimonia, but did not explicitly include the concept of “eudaimonia” (which is often the case in, for example, HCI research or the field of game studies), might have been missed in the current review.
Second, due to the intent of the review and the relatively large number of records included in the final sample, we looked at the broader picture of eudaimonic gaming research and took on a more descriptive perspective instead of discussing individual studies in-depth. A narrative review of the included records could uncover more details and nuance the current results regarding, for example, antecedents of eudaimonic game experiences or could fuel a meta-analysis on the effects of such game experiences.
The present literature review set out with two objectives in mind: to synthesize existing research on eudaimonia as a topic of interest within digital games research and to investigate which antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences have been identified in previous scholarship. We reviewed 165 academic articles in total. Through the review’s findings, we pinpointed several areas where future research could strengthen the current state of the literature. These include (a) a focus on eudaimonic concepts beyond well-established terms of meaning, appreciation or reflection to, for example, personal growth, awe, elevation, and sense of place; (b) a focus on eudaimonic gaming motives (and to some extent, eudaimonic outcomes) beyond the current main scope on experiences; (c) a focus on creating an integrated theoretical framework to study eudaimonia, specifically including the unique nature and dynamics of digital games; and (d) a focus on a broader range of antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonia beyond a focus on in-game or entertainment aspects, toward more real-world antecedents and outcomes of eudaimonic game experiences.
The present literature review contributes to the interdisciplinary research field of eudaimonia and digital games by providing a descriptive overview of the current state of the literature as well as mapping out several avenues for future scholarship to continue the important study of eudaimonia in the digital games context.