Refining the flow diagram

Last month, I posted on the origins of Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, but the diagram I focused on there (and that tends to pervade discussion of flow among game designers) is actually a bit dated.

Preparing for a reading group on engagement here at IU, I came across this very readable chapter from the Handbook of Positive Psychology, in it was introduced to a much more nuanced version of the Flow Diagram. If you're familiar with the classic flow diagram, you might notice it has some deficiencies. Most notably, the experience of being in a high-skill, high-challenge state is markedly different that a low-skill, low-challenge state, even though both fall within the so-called "flow channel".

As research on flow has progressed, it has become clear that the traditional model needs expansions, and the result is the diagram you see above. At first glance it may seem radically different, but in fact it is mapping the same challenge/skill space as the original, only now there is more intricacy to how the different regions of that space are defined. Recall that the standard model has three regions: the flow channel in the middle, the anxiety region (where challenge exceeds skill), and the boredom region (where skill exceeds challenged). The new diagram refines this picture by splitting the space into eight unique psychological states, all emanating concentrically from the center, where both challenge and skill fall in the middle of their respective ranges of possibility. Organized in this way, we are left with concentric circles that indicate the intensity of experience within each "slice". So, in the upper right, we have our familiar flow state, increasing in intensity as both challenge and skill increase. But if one increases more than other, we can either be pushed into arousal (high challenge with not quite enough skill to experience flow) or control (enough skill, but not enough challenge, to experience flow). Moving in the opposite direction from flow, simultaneous decreases in skill and challenge define apathy.

I won't go through all the regions in detail here, as the diagram should be clear to interpret by now. I will close, however, by asking you to reflect on how this new conception enhances the explanatory power of the flow framework. To start, note how it illustrates that there are actually two states associated with matched skills and challenges - apathy and flow - that would all have fallen into the flow channel of the original diagram. Further, it gives a much more nuanced picture of what happens outside of the flow channel. There's a lot of wiggle room between true flow and boredom or anxiety, and this new diagram gives us a more complete framework to think about these states.

Refining the flow diagram by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

4 Responses to “Refining the flow diagram”

  1. John says:

    Interesting. Can you point us to empirical research supporting the existence of these additional outcomes? Are these states categorical or continuous? If they are categorical, what does the empirical literature say differentiates flow from arousal or anxiety from worry? In other words, what is it that defines where the line between a state of arousal ends and a state of anxiety begins? Is it a phase transition? What evidence exists for this phase transition? On the other hand, if the empirical literature shows that these are continuous outcomes, does that mean that anxiety and arousal exist on some kind of continuum with anxiety at one end and arousal at the other? If not, then the model makes no sense. If so, then anxiety and arousal are somehow at polar opposites (which also doesn't have face validity). Or maybe there is no empirical support for any of this or an explanatory mechanism as there is with the dated model (Weber Tamborini et al, 2005, Comm Theory)?

    • Thanks for the comment, John. All the questions you bring up here are important ones for flow researchers to answer, and you seem to be implying that Csikszentmihalyi and co. have not answered them. This is a fair and accurate point, but I *don't* think it follows that "the model makes no sense".

      The flow diagram - both the original, three-region version, and the refined, eight-region version - boil down to the observation of systematicity in subjective responses. The new regions of the skill-challenge space I described in this post have been defined in much the same way as the regions in the original flow model: by noting that people systematically report feeling one way or another, given a particular balance of challenge and skill (see the references of the paper I link to in the post), and demonstrating that these subjective states can roughly be mapped onto a particular structure in the skill-challenge space.

      However, the flow framework is not, nor (to my knowledge) claims to be a mechanistic model. Work aimed at understanding the mechanisms underlying the subjective data flow research has presented, like the paper you cite, is of course crucial, but studying the mechanism behind a phenomenon depends on an understanding of what precisely that phenomenon is. I don't have answers to the questions you've brought up, but I think the model deserves credit for allowing us to ask those questions. Perhaps future empirical work will encourage modification of the model, but we have to start somewhere.

      • Jim says:

        The “Milan group” who came up with the refined diagram seem to be rather concerned with structure. I think this is fine when you have a body of empirical data that, when taken as a whole, almost make the structure self-evident. But doing the opposite, and imposing nuanced structure based on limited supportive data, is still potentially merited in that it can identify/suggest the hypotheses needed for testing. What’s unclear to me is whether the authors were more concerned with filling in the blanks in a nifty, suggestive diagram or with providing a model with testable assertions. If we’re assuming the latter, I think it’s fair to ask “Where is the follow-up testing?”; if the former, that’s fine, but its contribution is limited and requires others to do some heavy lifting.

        Also – the refined model reminds me a lot of the affective circumplex, which is commonly accepted by dimensional emotion researchers. I was trying to think of why that’s the case while something like the flow model (new or refined) seems to have so much trouble. Some thoughts:

        -- The underlying space for affect (valence-arousal) and flow (challenge-skill) both seem intuitive enough. However, valence and arousal more readily come off as simple, fundamental components of emotion, whereas the rationale for how challenge-skill matches lead to flow is much messier, incorporating aspects of valence, arousal, attention/awareness, performance, and, most slippery, perceived rather than objective levels of challenge.

        -- Beyond being intuitive (face validity, folk wisdom), the valence-arousal space has accepted ways for operationalizing the two underlying concepts (presumed internal validity). While the flow models may make implicit sense, I think that, with their reliance on ESM, measurement of the challenge-skill space underlying flow lacks the same rigor found in measuring emotion (theories of affect being triangulated through the big three of subjective reports, more or less universal facial expressions, and physiological correlates).

        -- As I’ve seen it, dimensional emotion theorists outline affect in terms of the model’s component parts (e.g., High-Arousal [HA], High-Arousal Positive [HAP], etc.) and do a clear job of explaining that discrete emotion titles (e.g., “sad”, “happy”) are just conventional labels that can be mapped onto these partitioned areas. The refined flow model, in contrast, seems to emphasize discrete conventional titles, which may be another reason it feels more folk science-y. Potentially superficial, yes, but still another possible contributor.

        People, including researchers like ourselves, like models and typologies with such structure because they make potentially complex phenomena easy to understand. But, personally, I find the refined flow model a bit too driven by a fetish for structure and probably not driven enough by data – when Csikszentmihalyi and co. start to outline the three concentric circles (“telenomies” of genetics, culture and the self), the whole thing feels a bit too much like folk science for my liking. But, again, that doesn't mean it is not potentially useful, for identifying hypotheses about the underlying nature of the psychological states noted.

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