Engagement Theory

Engagement theory is an approach to analyzing and creating engaging experiences, particularly interactive experiences. This includes books, plays, movies, music, sports, tabletop games, digital games, and more. Engagement theory is structured as the answer to four questions: Why? What? Who? How?

WHY is the experience interesting?
  • EngagementAccomplishment, Challenge, Competition, Fellowship, Discovery, Fantasy, Expression, Sensation, Catharsis
WHAT is the experience is actually made of?
  • ElementsSensory, Narrative, Interactive
WHO observes or interacts with the elements of the experience?
  • AudienceCapabilities, Dispositions, Motivations
HOW does the experience unfold for the audience?
  • DynamicsInterpretation, Possibilities, Tension
More Language and Theory
The overview of the four questions gives a high-level explanation of engagement theory, but they are more details about the language and concepts used.
  • Scale: All parts of an experience can be broken down into the micro, macro, and meta scales.
  • Possibility Spaces: Conceptualizing experiences as possibility spaces that are traversed by the audience.
  • Good vs Bad Tension: Not all tension is good, and you need to avoid causing tension overload and burnout.
  • Engagement Curves: Plotting the building and release of tension and engagement over time.
Composition Techniques
The process of determining the structure, timing, sequencing, and arrangement of elements is called composition. There are a variety of useful composition techniques that help create engagement.
  • Micro Composition: Arranging individual elements to create tempo, rhythm, melody, and harmony.
  • Macro Composition: Arranging sequences of elements to create intros, finales, outros, interludes, etc.
  • Composing Arcs: Creating interlaced arcs of events and goals to keep the audience engaged.
Additional Techniques
There are also useful techniques that are not focused on composition.
  • Personas: Creating groups of audience members with similar capabilities, dispositions, and motivations.
  • Progression Chains: Tracking how the audience learns through chains of knowledge and skills.
  • Difficulty Curves: Creating a flow state by carefully increasing difficulty and complexity over time.
Additional Resources
While engagement theory is very useful for understanding and creating engaging experiences, there are many other resources and theories that can be useful.
    Special Thanks
    Special thanks to Victor Cecci for his work and invaluable help in figuring out the structure and language of the theory--he is very much the co-author of this theory. Thanks to Kevin Sheehan for insisting that fundamental psychological motivations were critical to the theory. Thanks to Andrea Ellinger for the inspiration to use music theory as the basis for micro composition. Thanks to Boyan Radakovich for his insights on good vs. bad tension. Also thanks to James Portnow, Rich Rowan, and Bill Morrison for their contributions and feedback.