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My Philosophy of Media Reception Studies

Along with my thoughts on the encoding-decoding-recoding model, what follows comes from my dissertation on gendered media engagings and describes how I consider the fundamental elements of media reception and audience studies.

What are media products?      

Media products are the technologies, channels and contents that constitute our understanding of what is ‘the media’. They are the items produced for the purposes of disseminating meaning in the form of information, whether or not it is deemed to be entertaining, from one person to other(s). All three aspects are necessary in order to transmit meaning from sender to receiver; that is, a media product exists as some combination of the three. Thus, for example, the media product Orange is the New Black is a specific content that exists only in the Netflix channel which utilizes online technology. When these three aspects converge, we can analyze them as ‘texts’ in that they are created by human beings to serve human beings and are thus imprinted with the meaning-making processes of human beings that can be decoded.

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An Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model of Media Studies

This blog posts continues the dissection of my dissertation that I began by introducing the topic of gendered media engagings earlier this year. This post focuses on a model I used in my dissertation to understand the array of media studies conducted to investigate the ways in which gender is involved in how people engage with media products. As with so many interested in understanding audience reception of the media, I have been highly influenced by the late, great Stuart Hall’s work on what has become known as the “encoding/decoding model” in media studies. Now, I, with much humility, wonder if this classic model could be improved with one more step: recoding.

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Understanding Uses and Gratifications

[The following comes from my Ph.D. candidacy exam in 2007; in this part of the exam, I was asked to consider the uses and gratifications approach to media studies: what it is, how it came to be, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of it.]

            We are concerned here with explaining the uses-and-gratifications approach as part of the research field in communication and media studies.  In 1959, Elihu Katz, who penned the term “uses and gratifications,” described the focus of this research as no longer solely on “what media do to people” but instead with “what people do with the media.”  But why is this shift in questioning an important thing to do?  Why should we be concerned with what people are using the media for in their everyday media engagings1?

            Consider that communication is about transferring meaning from one person to another — the Sender has something s/he wishes the Receiver to know (Jensen, 1991).  The Sender then chooses some Media to transmit this information — be it non-technological, such as speaking face to face, or via one of the array of technological or artificial constructs our species has developed over the millennia, from cave paintings to mobile phone texting.  When we examine this communicating activity as the Observer, how do we know where meaning lies?  Do we ascribe it solely to the Sender, and blame any loss of meaning to the Media or the Receiver?  Do we analyze the message in the medium, or the text, and say that is where meaning lies?  Do we focus instead on the Receiver and the process s/he undertakes to make sense of the text to ultimately arrive at what s/he believes the Sender intended to mean?

            If we focus on the first question, then we as the Observer would consider what led the Sender to organize or encode the message to be of paramount interest.  To answer this question, researchers turn toward large sociological constructs, such as ideology, or they turn toward psychological concepts, such as greed.  If we focus on the second question, then we as the Observer would engage some type of text analysis, such as semiotics or psychoanalysis, to understand the way the information is structured in the text, making inferences back to the Sender’s intentions and forward to the potential impacts on the Receiver. 

            If, on the other hand, we focus on the third question, then we as the Observer have decided to understand what has led the Receiver to understand the text, and thus the Sender.  Our subsequent question becomes what led the Receiver to arrive at this or that interpretation of the meaning of the text?  And in a world of mass media, where the landscape of possibilities for consumption mean that the Receiver cannot possibly be the Receiver for every possible Sender who is transmitting messages, then another question becomes: what led the Receiver to select that particular text in the first place?  It is in answering this last question, where the goal is to understand the motivations for the selection, attention, and use of some media text, that the uses-and-gratifications approach applies.

            In the beginning of communication studies, especially in the United States and other countries that had just gone through the industrial revolution, there was a concern for how the new mass media would impact society by way of influencing its anomic individuals.  The repercussions of the industrial revolution are numerous and complicated, but one in particular was highlighted by sociologists: the dissolution of traditional community bonds of family as men and women moved from small rural settings to larger urban centers.  In these densely populated urban centers, individuals replaced families, and traditional means of communication were replaced with mass communication (Ryan & Wentworth, 1998).  Social institutions, such as governments, became concerned with what information and values these mass media were communicating and how it could be tied to the urban statistics of violence, juvenile delinquency and sexual deviance.  Another repercussion of the industrial revolution was the ideas of Karl Marx on the oppression of the working classes by those who controlled the means of industrial production.  The late 1800s to the early 1900s also saw the rise of propaganda that took advantage of these societal conditions; from Hearst’s war to the rise of advertising, it was in this environment that the study of direct, powerful, unconditional media effects arose and would later have to be tempered with uses-and-gratifications (Bryant & Thompson, 2002). 

            There was both public and academic consternation over the propaganda abilities of early newspapers and the governments of the “Great War.”  Add in the concerns about the youth culture of the Jazz Age, followed by the catastrophic plunge into the Great Depression, and we can get a better sense of the environment in which powerful media effects were normalized.  The results of Payne Fund Studies, the fear spawned by Orson Welles’ false Martians, and the expanding power of Nazism in the 1930s all fueled the academic focus and public belief in hypodermic needle — that no matter the person, no matter the circumstances in which the exposure occurred, everyone would be affected by the message, the meaning in the text, in the exact same way (Bryant & Thompson, 2002; McDonald, 2004).  In Germany, the Frankfurt School members, Theodor Adorno and Max Hornheimer, voiced their concerns over the mass distribution of culture in the 1930s.  Following Marx’s political economic models of criticism, they deemed the mass media to be “culture industries” that were detrimental to the citizen’s engagement with their nation as well as reproducing oppressive capitalism that normalized people to be workers and consumers (Kellner, 1995).  The media was seen as making juveniles into criminals, men into killers, women into sluts, and people into mindless workers and consumers.  The media audience was painted “always-as-passive,” empty and willing recipients into which the media poured meaning.  Things seemed bleak for any conceptualization of people being in control of their lives, let along their engagings with the mass media.

            But even during height of World War II and the huge propaganda occurring in all countries, we can find the inklings of the idea that not everyone was affected the same way (McDonald, 2004: Ruggiero, 2000).  These early studies were primarily exploratory as they employed case studies to describe media users who were active in their understandings of the media.  They catalogued the reasons these audience members were using the media.  Herzog (1940) found that listeners of radio quiz shows reported four appeals of the program — competitive, education, self-rating, and sporting — while listeners of radio serials (1944) reported different gratifications — emotional release, wishful thinking and advice. 

            After WWII, propaganda was still a major research issue, as the effects of Nazism reverberated around the world.  Yet there continued to be research done that countered the notion of the “always-as-passive” audience as they demonstrated how different members of the same audience would have different reasons for using the same media, indicating that they were not simply empty recipients for the meaning the media distributed.  Lasswell’s (1948) research on a variety of mass media resulted in the three classic functions people used them for — surveillance of environment, correlation of events in environment, and transmission of social heritage — to which Wright (1960) later added entertainment.  Berelson (1949) found several uses for newspapers that overlaid with Lasswell — information and interpretation of events — plus uses that were more unique — tools for daily living; respite or escape; social prestige and contact. 

            At the time, no attempt was made to theorize these findings or to empirically test these gratifications beyond the context of the original case studies in order to illustrate the distribution of these reasons (Ruggiero, 2000).  Besides, the rise of behavioral and social psychology provided a range of theories were adapted to the communication studies of persuasion (McDonald, 2004).  Most of the 1950s research paid less attention to what real people really do in the real world of variable and unstable media choices, focusing instead on proving media effects from the frequency of exposure to certain types of media texts (Blumler, 1969).

            Then, in 1959, Elihu Katz published an essay calling for systematic investigation of “what people do with the media.”  In his review of media effects research, he argued researchers cannot say that the media affect the person who has no use for the media.  His concerns were echoed by Joseph Klapper (1960), who stressed the need to study the intervening factors that would turn all-powerful effects models to conditional models.  While Anglo-American researchers spoke on the amount and usefulness of media effects research, German philosophers and literary critics began to take more seriously the role of the reader in terms of meaning-construction (Holub, 1984; Iser, 1978).  This second wave of phenomenological interpretivism emphasized seeking to understand how people “make sense” of reality and their lives (Morley, 1992).  The idea of researching “what people do with the media” became a rallying point for media researchers who wanted to challenge the conception of the passive audience and hypodermic needle (McQuail, 1984).  And yet, the 1960s saw much of this discussion remain in the background, while the vast amount of research continued to be media effects oriented, especially as new, more cognitive oriented theories began to emerge from psychology.       

            In one of the first studies to begin the uses-and-gratifications tradition, McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) interrogated the use of the media, television in particular, to simply escape from reality.  McQuail and colleagues sought to understand the numerous and potentially contradictory motivations that compelled television viewers to engage with particular texts that cultural critiques deemed as “entirely unmemorable, undemanding, and unstimulating.” (p. 138).  They investigated the different motivations people have for escaping into these unintellectual programs.  Conducting the first form of factor analysis to create gratification categories from the reasons given by television viewers, they relabeled escape “diversion” and went further to show that there were different types of diversion gratifications: escape from the constraint of routine; escape from the burden of problems; and, emotional release.  More importantly, these “escape” motivations were found to co-exist with other types of gratifications (personal relationships, personal identity, and surveillance), thereby supporting their argument that what society may look down upon as simple escapism was a far more complex media engaging than the television viewers had been given credit for.

            In 1974, Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz edited a volume that provided the formalization of the uses-and-gratifications approach, The Uses of Mass Communication.  In this volume researchers defined the variables and relationships they saw as accounting for what leads a person to use this or that media technology or text.  Indeed, it was in the first essay that Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (1974) outlined seven-steps to indicate the three main assumptions behind uses-and-gratifications research: (a) the media audiences are active in their selection of what media to use, which they can recall and report at a later time, (b) and an important part of media use is goal directed as they seek to gratify some need from their media use, (c) but the various media compete with other sources for need satisfaction.  Because this was the first true formalization of what would become the main tenets of the uses-and-gratifications approach, it is worth taking a moment to explore them. 

            The first part of the statement refers to uses-and-gratifications’ fundamental belief that audiences are active.  A person will consciously make the choice to use a particular media item.  Because this choice was made consciously, it is also assumed that such selection, and the reasons for it, should be recalled just as actively — all one has to do is ask.  The second part of this statement solidifies uses-and-gratifications’ name.  People are assumed to have reasons for selecting the media that they do.  Psychology has research on the needs and desires people cope with as they move through life.  These needs may be universal, such as food, and shelter; they may be culturally or socially based, such as cultural information; or they may be more personal, such as adventure or addiction.  Uses-and-gratifications argues that a person experiencing some need will seek out the media they believe will satisfy this need.  While this link between the need and the expectation of a gratification is not the only predictor for media use, it is considered to be an important contributor after accounting for other factors (Swanson, 1987).  The third part of this statement concerns what is referred to as “functional alternatives” (Rosengren & Windahl, 1972).  The reality is that media use exists in a world where the media compete with each other and non-media sources, such as friends and family, to gratify needs.  A person must actively select from this entire landscape to gratify a need.  The goal of research is to account for the determinants of this selection. 

            After the foundation of concepts and methods was set, empirical studies were undertaken to illustrate the main tenets.  However, critics from both inside and outside of the uses-and-gratifications approach took aim at this foundation.  Their main criticism centered on the uses-and-gratifications approach providing epistemological guidelines and not empirically viable theories about the relationships between a media user’s preference, choice, and evaluation of some media, as well as between use and potential effects (McQuail, 1997; Schrøder, Drotner, Kline, & Murray, 2003).  This challenge was embraced by uses-and-gratifications researchers who looked to psychology, as media effects had done, for a variety of theories to address the criticisms and explain the mechanisms implied the by the main tenets.  In doing such, they developed theories that validated seeing uses-and-gratifications as a metatheoretical approach.  A person who has this approach could employ any of those theories.  Table 1 includes an outline of the major theories and concepts developed for uses-and-gratifications during this period.

             Creating theories to explore the mechanisms of uses-and-gratifications provided for a more thorough understanding of this aspect of media engagings.  It is one thing to highlight that there is some phenomenon worthy of being studied, and then doing as much as possible to describe what that phenomenon is.  It is another thing to delve into this phenomenon to understand how it is — to explain the processes and mechanisms that make that phenomenon what it is.  Up until the formation or adoption of these theories, the uses-and-gratifications approach had managed to bring attention to the need to theoretically and empirically address the limitations to direct media effects via the importance of audience activity.  But it is in actually theorizing the mechanisms that we can legitimize why it is important to do such research. 

            What we have seen in the historical trajectory of the uses-and-gratifications approach is: a) countering the passive, hypodermic conceptions of traditional media effects; b) gathering the concepts and tenets used to explain why this approach needs to be considered by those primarily interested in media effects; and, c) how the reactions from media effects researchers, who have long taken in theories for their studies, forced uses-and-gratifications researchers to do the same. 

            To answer this question of what characterizes uses and gratifications, I could bring in critical/cultural approaches to media engagings, and the extent to which they have focused on issues of ideology and resistance (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990; Morley, 1992).  However, when you abstract up, there is the same type of split in the qualitative branch of media studies that there is in the quantitative branch.  They have both, at essentially the same time, conceptualized media audiences/users similarly as passive and then active, which has impacted how they studied their media engagings.  They have both been concerned with the influential power of the media, and then with critiquing this conception without considering the role of the audience.  As such, I will focus on outlining these differences in the quantitative branch, indicating where appropriate how the critical/cultural differs.

            Perhaps the fundamental differences between uses-and-gratifications approach and the traditional media effects approach has been how researchers from these two camps conceptualized the role of the person in these engagings.  Historically, the media effects approach, with their conceptualization of the direct effects model and the oppression of dominant ideology, was more likely to endorse an illustration of the media user as the passive recipient.  This concept of the media user can be seen in a variety of theories used by media effects researchers to explain how media exposure can have such a negative or positive effect.  Theories include cultivation, which assumes that because you watch a lot of television you’ll come to see reality as depicted on TV, and priming, which assumes that exposure to one idea in the media can activate other ideas, which may lead you to engage in some behavior you would not have done otherwise had it not been for the exposure.  Uses-and-gratifications, in its challenge to this hypodermic approach, saw these media users as an active participant, more likely to act and react in terms of what media is used and how it is used, or in the case of the critical/cultural approach, to even resist the powerful influences of the media.  Although these extremes of “always-as-passive” versus “always-as-active” are less likely to be endorsed now with current conceptualizations seeing activity levels variable depending some the context, these philosophical differences in how the media user is seen leads to methodological differences in how the media user is studied.

            Recall as one of the main tenets that uses-and-gratifications assumes people can actively recall their reasons for their media use.  With this as a guiding influence, researchers tend to focus on using pure recall measures, such as interviews and surveys, instead of behavioral measures, such as observations of actual activities.  The philosophy makes it imperative for uses-and-gratifications research to focus on understanding the “black box” of the person’s mind from which needs, expectations, and perceptions arise.  While a person’s selection of a media could be tracked by recording what media was used when, where and how much, most of the time their reasons for that selection cannot be inferred from that behavior.  It may be possible to infer mood management when a sad person exhibits a change in body language upon using a comedy, or in tracking the use of some popular media text, such as American Idol, to initiate contact with strangers.  But all of these observations run the great risk of faulty inferences.  The gathering of recall information is done from either a quantitative or qualitative perspective; the impetus for such measurement remains the same. 

            Here critical/cultural studies of active media use as a form of resistance does differ from some of the fundamental methods of uses-and-gratifications.  These reception studies tend to be more interested in the ways in which media texts are decoded, or interpreted, using Hall’s encoding/decoding model as their touchstone (Hall, 1973/93).  However, instead of asking people to list their reasons for selecting or interpreting the media they way they have, these studies are more focused on understanding their media engagings as being an aspect of the sociodemographic category they are a member of (Livingstone, 1994; Morley, 2006).  The philosophical assumption centers on studying this or that category due to its oppressed status, and thus ascribing a particular type of media engaging to this oppressed status.  Even with uses-and-gratifications tendency to create typologies of gratifications to represent an entire sample, these typologies are at least in part founded on the self-reports of people’s actual media use.

            Media effects research, especially when assuming some form of direct effects model, do use observations of behaviors to infer effects.  Pornography studies have measured men’s flirting with female cohorts.  Violence studies have measured the violent activities of children against toys and each other.  The philosophical assumption of media effects research is that exposure leads to either a change or stabilization of some behavior or attitude; and, as attitudes are theorized as leading to behaviors, recording observable behaviors and inferring backwards to exposure is a viable analysis method — which actually makes their procedure similar to the perchance to infer done in critical/cultural studies.  In those instances when a conditional effects model is employed, and the factors theorized to limit the effect are psychological in nature, then media effects will employ recall measurements.  However, with more advancement in the field of neurophysiology that is applicable to “black box” processes, there has been a rise in studies using brain scans and other physiological measurements (McDonald, 2004).          

            A final point to make is that regardless of which field one belongs to, focusing on media selection and/or interpretation or impacts from the media are simply two sides of the same coin.  In particular to the more quantitatively-minded field, creating uses-and-gratifications typologies has become a way to categorize people, their needs, and media technologies and texts as predictors for media use and thus amounts of and types of media effect.  This way of categorizing audiences potentially allows for people to be segmented and studied based on their gratifications instead of their sociodemographic memberships or psychological traits (Domzal & Kernan, 1983; Lazarsfeld, Berelson & Gaudet, 1944; Ruggiero, 2000; Schrøder, Drotner, Kline & Murray, 2003; Tesser, Millar & Wu, 1988).  Originally the idea of the active audience was a way to position the media user as someone impervious to the persuasive influences of the media, allowing for the resistant media user idealized by cultural reception studies (Morley, 2006).  However, uses-and-gratifications results are now more seen as a way to link how a person interprets mediated messages to the consequences of exposure (Becker, 1976; Gantz, 1978).  This link, sometimes called “uses and effects” (Rubin, 2002; Windahl, 1981), was part of the original challenge to direct effects to produce conditional effects, and in fact becomes a new philosophical assumption to drive research that seeks to show what type of gratification is most likely to predict what type of media effect. 

            Interestingly, a similar hybridization occurs in critical/cultural work, where an ideologically driven media message is assumed to be related to a specific type of audience resistance, which is then illuminated by studying those sociodemographic categories that are assumed will show this resistance.  However, again, the qualitatively-minded research tends to infer more about the actual person’s interpretations than the quantitatively-minded research, even if it does not delve deep enough to truly articulate how the media user perceives the media engaging, from use to effect.   

“Always-as-active”?   

            One criticism that drove to the heart of uses-and-gratifications concerns the assumption of the always active audience.  We cannot assume that being active is an either/or proposition; people may vary between being completely active to completely passive (Blumler, 1979).  This concern has been handled predominantly in two ways, as outlined in Table 1. What both of these reconceptualizations of activity have shown is that “different individuals tend to display different types and amounts of activity in different communication settings and at different times in the communication process.” (Ruggiero, 2000, p. 8).  This view of the active audience is far more accepted now than the either/or proposition of earlier researchers.  However, this raises the concern of how does one know when the media user is active or passive? 

            There still remains much to be done to understand the antecedents of activity, and even to what extent the media user is able to be a determinant in when he or she is active.  Characteristics of the media technology the user engages with have been often discussed as the primary determinant for when a person will be an active or a passive consumer, and indeed the newer interactive technology do require such activity far more than the traditional older media.  Situational aspects have often been a secondary determinant, such as the classic example of the housewife focusing on her cleaning while the radio or television is on in the background.  But if we accept the work of reception theorists who argue for the role of the reader in constructing a text (Holub, 1984; Iser, 1978), then even the presumed passivity of the “couch potato” is called into question as any moment of media consumption involves some aspect of active processing — even the random channel flipping is to some extent an active processing to determine what to finally watch.  In which case, it behooves researchers to understand the position of the media user as a determinant for her own activity levels.

General motivations or media-specific motivations?

            There have been attempts to create one “Master Typology”, seeking reliability and validity of such measurements by comparing them across audiences, contexts, and time-spans (McDonald & Glynn, 1984; Rubin 2002), but there has been no theoretical work that enables the UG researcher to predict or generalize these reasons to any type of media engaging.  Many typologies tend to be applicable only to a specific media engagement, such as for British children and television (Greenberg, 1974), public television viewing (Palmgreen & Rayburn, 1979) and playing video games (Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg & Lachlan, 2006).  While the myriad of typologies may have some similarity in defining and naming gratifications, such as McQuail and colleagues classic typology (1972), oftentimes they will “discover” new gratifications that do not easily apply to other types of media engagement (Ruggiero, 2000; Rubin, 2002). 

            The question is, should such a pursuit be abandoned, as the plurality of reasons for media engagings simply prevents anything as parsimonious as a “Master Typology”?  Or is it that the approaches to studying the reasons have not been able to capture what may be human universals that transcend the situatedness of the media engagings?  Critics argue that unless something approximating that “Master Typology” can be accomplished, then even the fundamental assumptions of the approach are called into question.  I would argue it is possible to achieve an accounting for the range of gratifications that does not have to be a chaotic mess.  However, I would argue such can only be accomplished after a thorough analysis of actual, situated recollections of media engagings so as to account for the variety of factors that influence these needs (Schrøder, et al, 2003), with the goal of locating repeating patterns.  This critique relies on the idea that recollections of general media use so abstracts the concrete nature of a person’s media engagings that these reasons become too malleable and easy to manipulate for the researchers who are hoping that their study’s typology will become the typology.

Real people or snapshots?      

            For all of uses-and-gratifications researchers’ claims that they are concerned with the media audiences’ use of the media, there remains the problem that they are not interested in real people dealing with real media engagings in their real lives.  While uses-and-gratifications researchers assert that people actively choose their media, the research constructs these choices as general tendencies, based upon sociodemographic or psychological factors, and not actual activities as the person copes with life (Blumler, 1969; Conway & Rubin, 1991; McGuire, 1974).  Human beings are reconceptualized as being a category on a typological list, understood as based on the origin of their need, the gratification they sought or obtained, or the way they in general use the media (McQuail, 1997; Ruggiero, 2000). 

            This problem comes from the tendency to ask media users about their general media use, which assumes there is stability to the gratifications sought.  In other words, a person who repeatedly engages with the same media, either a technology or a text, is assumed to do so to gratify the same need.  McQuail, Blumer and Brown (1972) had indicated with their inaugural study the complex and potentially contradictory nature of media use within one instance of a media engaging.  If a person can have multiple gratifications within one use, it seems illogical to assume the same gratification would occur across multiple uses, as measured in aggregate when asking for recall on general use.  Asking about general use without delving into the specific use may also result in confusion for the person.  The characteristics of the content may become hard to separate from the characteristics of the content, as rarely is a technology used without some content being the focus.  It may thus be hard for the person to untangle what it was that exactly gratified a particular need (Bantz, 1982).  Also, media usage may change depending on the characteristics of the situation in which the media use occurs, something Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (1974) indicated as possible when discussing how social characteristics can impact media-related needs (Donohew, Palmgreen & Rayburn, 1987).  How the media user’s perceptions of the situation have been shown to impact the gratifications from the involved media use (Spirek, Dervin, Nilan & Martin, 1999; Wendel & Dellaert, 2005).

            Any reliance on stability may also explain why different studies on the same type of media engagings, which often occur in different situations, can result in different and even contradictory typologies.  Critics have argued that the fluidity of media use across time and space means uses-and-gratifications researchers should expect and accept non-stability in the responses gathered from people (Massey, 1995).  Unfortunately, methods that ask for recall on specific items, such as surveys, or ask for impressions of how a particular media has been useful across a number of engagings, such as interviews, have not been flexible enough to measure this fluidity (Reinhard & Dervin, 2007; Schrøder, et al, 2003).  More emphasis on recalling the situational and experiential, and less on pondering the hypothetical or aggregating to the generalized would be a great boon to furthering the theoretical work in the uses-and-gratifications approach. 

Crossing the bridge to other approaches

             As mentioned above, there has been both quantitative and qualitative research perspectives employed to study uses-and-gratifications.  However, the propensity of the research has been from the quantitative side, with qualitative research routinely being relegated either to exploratory pilot studies or for the use of interviews without much incorporation of more epistemological or methodological considerations from that perspective.  Thus, while there has been some in-depth analysis for the reasons of people’s media engagings, these have often not broached the complexity of media engagings that were outlined by the approach’s founders: the factors influencing needs, expectations, evaluations; the general versus situatedness of media engagings; the mechanisms by which uses relate to interpretations and to effects. 

            What I have found to be encouraging is the way the uses-and-gratifications approach has been used as a bridge to connect to other research fields who are also interested in the processes of people’s media engagings.  Massey (1995) used the media diaries of her students to understand their media use in a specific situation they all experienced, the Loma Prieta earthquake.  This approach allowed her to see the complexity of active media use within a particular context without the logistical problems of cost, time and labor often a hindrance to understanding the influences on media engagings.  However, this was also found data, which did not allow her to further interrogate any of the reasons her students had for their media use.  Dervin and Song (2005) asked people to recall how the media helped in situations of their choosing, which was neither imposed upon them by the researcher nor some common situation.  However, after getting these helps, which are conceptually the gratifications received from whatever need arose in the situation, the researchers went deeper by asking how these helps helped, and how those helps helped, and so forth until no new help was mentioned.  Using this help chain, going beyond just the first solicited gratification, demonstrated a more complex relationship between media use and gratifications than typically achieved in surveys or studies such as Massey’s, making it more akin to what McQuail and colleagues began in 1972.  

          Other studies, like Wendel and Dellaert (2005), that are not uses-and-gratifications in name but in spirit, have also provided more complex means by which to theorize or study this phenomenon.  Steele and Brown (1995) developed the Media Practice Model as an integrative model to show how selection, interpretation and application of a media text are related to an adolescent’s identity formation.  The study and its subsequent attempts at replication have employed ethnographic methods of interviews and observation that are situated in the context of a person’s bedroom.  Jewkes (2002) used the more qualitatively employed theories of Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu in her analysis of the reasons for and interpretations of media in a men’s prison.  In the interviews she conducted, issues of managing the power structure of the prison and ways of negotiating and performing identity related to the media they choose to use.  These two studies differ in their approach to studying situated media engagings, largely due to their different epistemological frameworks; however, along with the other studies mentioned, they provide promising examples for research that explores the complexities of media engagings.

Rise of digital media

            Perhaps the most important of the latest developments in the uses-and-gratifications approach is the development and diffusion of newer media technologies, such as the internet, digital games, DVRs, and mobile devices, all of which have become the targets for uses-and-gratifications research (for example: Althaus & Tewksbury, 2000; LaRose & Eastin, 2004; Leung & Wei, 2000; Ogan & Cagiltay, 2006; Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000; Sherry et al, 2006).  The steady growth of new media has also spurred more discussion on that fundamental philosophical aspect of the active audience.  One cannot escape conceptualizing the use of these new media as anything but active consumption.  In fact, uses-and-gratifications assumptions may be best applicable to the internet and other interactive media like video games due to requirement of activity levels need for users to actually produce the media content (Cover, 2006).  As with the arguments from the reception theorists (Holub, 1984), when users are so integral to the production of meaning, researchers are required to look at the users’ side of the relationship (Jensen, 1991; Livingstone, 2004; McQuail, 1997). 

            Even if the researcher is not interested in the interactive nature of media like video games or websites, there is no denying that this recent growth of new media has also greatly increased the number of functional alternatives available for the media user.  The landscape described by Blumler (1969) is now very crowded.  Television channels have exploded into the hundreds; digital jukeboxes house thousands of songs for downloading; digital games are available in a variety of formats; and, possible websites, webpages, and weblogs are simply innumerable.  With limited time available for leisure activities or even information-seeking tasks– regardless of work schedule, there is only so much time in a day — today’s financially well-off media user who could potentially access the entire mediascape must be not only active but strategic in his or her media choices (Livingstone, 2004).            

What lies underneath entertaining?

            As mentioned with the McQuail and colleagues (1972)  and Dervin and Song (2005) studies, the uses-and-gratifications approach, when properly employed methodologically, can get to the reasons underneath the knee-jerk response a person may give about why they use this or that media for the purposes of escapism or entertainment.  As a lingering effect of the chasm between high culture and low or “pop” culture, which served as an impetus for critical/cultural studies focus on resistance (Hall, 1980/98; Morley, 2006), media users who watched a film or read a book for escapism are looked down upon by society.  This stereotype has also been applied to those individuals who take tremendous interest in some media item and are very active in their use of it, such as the fans of Star Trek or Star Wars.  Such individuals, from the consumer of low brow media entertainment to the active fan, are cultural dupes and social deviants, forming affections for things that are not worthy of such attention (Jensen, 2001). 

            By undertaking research to explore the reasons beyond these surface responses, it may be possible to disrupt the oftentimes politically charged (either liberal or conservative: Morley, 2006) discourses that denounce this or that media use as debasing to the human condition.  It is in understanding these deeper reasons people have for wanting to be entertain or to escape that we can possibly understand how people’s struggling with the human condition truly inspires their media use.  This interrogation requires the researcher to ask further whying questions — why do you consider such and such entertaining? — what about such and such leads you to say provides escapism?  These deeper digs require a move towards situating media use when studying it; people are much more able to provide for a list of reasons beyond the superficial level of “entertaining” when they recall a particular situation in which a need arose and the media was used to gratify it. 

Why do I make my character kill?     

            As mentioned above, the rise of digital, interactive media seems tailor-made for the tenets of uses-and-gratifications.  Digital games and interactive narratives require the user to be actively engaged for the text to progress (Cover, 2006); digital games are a perfect example of this type of engagement.  Beyond just deciding which game to play, the player is largely responsible for the progress of the game within the limits set by the game designer, which are increasingly becoming very minimal.  Games with narratives will only unveil their story if the player engages in certain activities.  Like a book, the player can control to an extent the time in which the game unfolds — be it a few hours or a few years.  Unique to all other media texts is the ability for a player to potentially control the sequence of the story’s events, or even construct the story as the game progresses.  Online role-playing games and social interaction games can truly be under the control the player at all times, from selection of game, characters, and story to the moment-by-moment unfolding of the game.

            As of now, research has looked into the uses-and-gratifications for the use of the entire text — why do you play video games (Sherry et al, 2006; Reinhard & Dervin, 2007)?  But because the person is making active decisions throughout the process of engaging with the text, each of those moments of activity could be likewise examined from a uses-and-gratifications approach to understand the processing of the text.  Each decision a player actively makes — the design of the character, to slay the dragon or fight the orc, to shoot a teammate or an opponent — each moment of active media use can become a microcosm of needs, desires, expectations and evaluations worthy of analysis.  Such a minutiae focus may be potentially necessary given the impetus to link reasons for media use to potential for media effects that surrounds the study of these new media, which is seen as even more important given this interactive nature of video games (Dill & Dill, 1998).   

            While such study would be currently most applicable to digital games, given the obvious moment-by-moment activity required for engaging with them, the concepts illuminated in such research could apply to other interactive media, such as websites, as well as the more traditional media that does not appear as interactive.  If the role of the Receiver is truly one of active decoding of a media text’s meaning, as Iser (1978) and Hall (1973/93) suggest, then the same type of moment-by-moment processing would be applicable to other media engagings, such as the consumption of a television show or a film.  At these moments of reception, the same questions, assumptions and theories of the uses-and-gratifications approach could apply.  In doing so, we may better illuminate how media selection is connected to media effect as well as why the media was chosen in the first place and how it comes to be able to gratify the need(s) of the individual.

End Notes

1.  By media engaging I am focusing on the phenomenon of a person’s engagement with some media technology or text, be it a one time encounter or an ongoing, repeating arrangement.  There is both a spatial aspect to media engaging, as any interaction with a technology or text does not occur in a contextual vacuum, and there is a temporal aspect, as the instance of engagement can be singular or plural.  When the media engaging is a repeated returning to the same technology or text, then logically each media engaging would be situationally different from the others as time has changed and most likely aspects of the space, and how this situation is perceived by the individual, in which the media engaging occurs has changed as well. 

A media engaging involves some media item, with its own set of constraining characteristics, and an individual, who brings into the engaging interpretive baggage constructed from a variety of factors, and this entire media engaging occurs in some contextual environment that can influence the engaging further with situational, social and cultural factors.  While the relationship between these three components (media, user, context) may change over time, it is the processes that underlie the relationships that most interest me; hence the reason the term is “media engagings” and not “media engagements”.

Table 1. Key theoretical and conceptual developments during the 1980s in the uses-and-gratifications approach

Tablept1

Tablept2

            Althaus, S. & Tewksbury, D.  (2000).  Patterns of internet and traditional news media use in a networked community.  Political Communication, 17, p. 21-45.

            Bantz, C. R.  (1982).  Exploring uses and gratifications: a comparison of reported uses of television and reported uses of favorite program type.  Communication Research, 9(3), p. 352-379.

            Becker, L. B. (1976).  Two tests of media gratifications: Watergate and the 1974 election.  Journalism Quarterly, 53(1), p. 28-33, 87.

            Berelson, B.  (1949).  “What ‘missing the newspaper’ means”.  In P.F. Lazarsfeld & F.N. Staunton (Eds).  Communications Research 1948-1949.  New York: Harper.

            Blumler, H.  (1969).  Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and method.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

            Blumler, J. G.  (1979).  The role of theory in uses and gratifications studies.  Communication Research, 6(1), p. 9-36.

            Blumler, J. G.  (1985).  “The social character of media gratifications.”  In K.E. Rosengren, L.A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp. 41-60).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Blumler, J. G, Gurevitch, M. & Katz, E.  (1985).  “Reaching out: a future for gratifications research.”  In K. E. Rosengren, L. A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp.255-274).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Bryant, J. & Thompson, S.  (2002).  Fundamentals of Media Effects.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

            Conway, J.C. & Rubin, A. M.  (1991).  Psychological predictors of television viewing motivation.  Communication Research, 18(4), p. 443-463.

            Cover, R.  (2006).  Audience inter/active: Interactive media, narrative control and reconceiving audience history.  New Media & Society, 8(1), p. 139-158.

            Dervin, B. & Song, M.  (2005).  Reaching for phenomenological depths in uses and gratifications research: a quantitative empirical investigation.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New York City, May.  Available online: http://communication.sbs.ohio-state.edu/sense-making/art/artabsdervinsong05icaUG.html

            Dill, K. E. & Dill, J. C.  (1998).  Video game violence: A review of the empirical literature.  Aggression and Violent Behavior, 3(4), p. 407-428.

            Domzal, T. J. & Kernan, J. B.  (1983).  Television audience segmentation according to need gratification.  Journal of Advertising Research, 23(5), p. 37-49.

            Donohew, L., Palmgreen, P. & Rayburn II, J. D.  (1987).  Social and psychological origins of media use: a lifestyle analysis.  Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 31(3), p. 255-278.

            Elliott, P.  (1974).  “Uses and gratifications research: A critique and a sociological alternative.”  In J. G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.)  The Uses of Mass Communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 249-268).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance.  Evanston, IL: Row & Peterson.

            Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975).  Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior : an introduction to theory and research.  Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub.

            Galloway, J. J. & Meek, F. L.  (1981).  Audience uses and gratifications: An expectancy model.  Communication Research, 8(4), p. 435-450.

            Gantz, W.  (1978).  How uses and gratifications affect recall of television news.  Journalism Quarterly, 55(4), p. 664-672, 681.

            Greenberg, B.S.  (1974).  “Gratifications of television viewing and their correlates for British children.  In J.G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.)  The Uses of Mass Communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 71-92)..  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Hall, S.  (1973/1993).  “Encoding, decoding.”  In S. During (Ed.).  The cultural studies reader (pp. 90-103).  New York: Routledge.

            Hall, S.  (1980/1998).  “Cultural studies: Two paradigms.”  In. R. C Davis & R. Schleifer (Eds.).  Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and cultural studies (4th ed.) (pp. 664-678).  New York: Longman.

            Herzog, H.  (1940).  “Professor Quiz: a gratification study.”  In P.F. Lazarsfeld (Ed.).  Radio and the Printed Page.  New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce.

            Herzog, H.  (1944).  “What do we really know about daytime serial listeners?”.  In P.F. Lazarsfeld & F.N. Stanton (Eds.).  Radio Research 1942-1943 (pp. XXXX).  New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce.   

            Jensen, J.  (2001).  “Fandom as pathology: The consequences of characterization.”  In C. L. Harrington & D. D. Bielby (Eds.)  Popular Culture: Production and consumption (pp. 301-314).  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

            Jensen, K. B. (1991).  When is meaning? Communication theory, pragmatism, and mass media reception.  In J.A. Anderson (Ed) Communication Yearbook 14 (pp. 3-32).  Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

            Jensen, K. B. & Rosengren, K. E.  (1990).  Five traditions in search of the audience.  European Journal of Communication, 5, p. 207-238.

            Katz, E.  (1959).  Mass communication research and the study of popular culture.  Studies in Public Communication, 2, p. 1-6.

            Katz, E., Blumler, J. G. & Gurevitch, M.  (1974).  “Utilization of mass communication by the individual.”  In J.G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.)  The Uses of Mass Communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 19-34).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Kellner, D.  (1995).  Media culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern.  New York, NY: Routledge.

            Klapper, J.  (1960).  The Effects of Mass Communication.  New York: Free Press.

            Knobloch, S.  (2003).  Mood adjustment via mass communication.  Journal of Communication, 53(2), p. 233-250.

            Lasswell, H. S.  (1948).  The structure and function of communication in society.  In L. Bryson (Ed.).  The Communication of Ideas: A series of addresses (pp. 37-51).  New York: Harper.

            Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B. & Gaudet, H.  (1944).  The People’s Choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign.  New York: Columbia University Press.

            Leung, L. & Wei, R.  (2000).  More than just talk on the move: Uses and gratifications of the cellular phone.  Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 77(2), p. 308-320.

            Levy, M. R. (1983).  Conceptualizing and measuring aspects of audience “activity”.  Journalism Quarterly, 60, p. 109-114.

            Levy, M. R. & Windahl, S.  (1984).  Audience activity and gratifications: a conceptual clarification and exploration.  Communication Research, 11(1), p. 51-78.

            Levy, M. R. & Windahl, S.  (1985).  “The concept of audience activity.”  In K.E. Rosengren, L.A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp. 109-122).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Livingstone, S.  (1994).  “The rise and fall of audience research: An old story with a new ending.”  In M. R. Levy & M. Gurevitch (Eds.)  Defining Media Studies: Reflections on the future of the field (pp. 247-255).  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

            Livingstone, S.  (2004).  The challenge of changing audiences: or, what is the audience research to do in the age of the internet?  European Journal of Communication, 19(1), p. 75-86.

            Massey, K. B.  (1995).  Analyzing the uses and gratifications concept of audience activity with a qualitative approach: Media encounters during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake disaster.  Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 39, p. 328-349.

           

            McDonald, D.  (2004).  “Twentieth-century media effects research.”  In J. D. H. Downing (Ed.)  The Handbook of Media Studies (pp. 183-200).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

            McDonald, D. G. & Glynn, C. J.  (1984).  The stability of media gratifications.  Journalism Quarterly, 61(3),  p. 542-549, 741.

            McGuire, W. J.  (1974).  “Psychological motives and communication gratification.”  In J.G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.)  The Uses of Mass Communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp. 167-196).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            McQuail, D.  (1984).  With the benefit of hindsight: Reflections on uses and gratifications research.  Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1, p. 177-193.

            McQuail, D.  (1997).  Audience Analysis.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

            McQuail, D., Blumler, J. G. & Brown, J. R.  (1972).  The television audience: a revised perspective.  In D. McQuail (Ed.) Sociology of Mass Communication; Selected readings (pp. 135-165).  Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.   

            Morley, D.  (1992).  Television audiences and cultural studies.  New York, NY: Routledge.

            Morley, D.  (2006).  Unanswered questions in audience research.  The Communication Review, 9, p. 101-121.

            Ogan, C. L & Cagiltay, K.  (2006).  Confession, revelation and storytelling: Patterns of use on a popular Turkish website.  New Media & Society, 8(5), p. 801-823.

            Palmgreen, P.  (1984).  Uses and gratifications: a theoretical perspective.  In R.N. Bostrom (Ed.).  Communication Yearbook 8 (pp. 20-55).  Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

            Palmgreen, P. & Rayburn II, J. D.  (1979).  Uses and gratifications and exposure to public television: A discrepancy method.  Communication Research, 6: p. 155-179.

            Palmgreen, P. & Rayburn II, J. D.  (1982).  Gratifications sought and media exposure: an expectancy value model.  Communication Research, 9(4), p. 561-580.

            Palmgreen, P. & Rayburn II, J. D.  (1985).  “An expectancy-value approach to media gratifications.”  In K. E. Rosengren, L. A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp. 61-72).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Palmgreen, P., Wenner, L. A. & Rayburn II, J. D.  (1980).  Relations between gratifications sought and obtained: a study of television news.  Communication Research, 7(2), p. 161-192.

            Palmgreen, P., Wenner, L. A. & Rosengren, K. E.  (1985).  “Uses and gratifications research: The past ten years.” In K.E. Rosengren, L.A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp. 11-37).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Papacharissi, Z. & Rubin, A. M.  (2000).  Predictors of internet use.  Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44(2), p. 175-196.

            Rayburn II, J.D., Palmgreen, P. & Acker, T.  (1984).  Media gratifications and choosing a morning news program.  Journalism Quarterly, 61(1), p. 149-156.

            Reinhard, C. D. & Dervin, B.  (2007).  Situational and gender comparisons of digital game players’ preferences for game features and gratifications. Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA

            Rosengren, K. E.  (1974).  “Uses and gratifications: A paradigm outlined.”  In J.G. Blumler & E. Katz (Eds.)  The Uses of Mass Communications: Current perspectives on gratifications research (pp.269-286).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

            Rosengren, K. E.  (1994).  “Starting up”.  In K.E. Rosengren (Eds.) Media Effects and Beyond: Culture, socialization, and lifestyles pp. 297-306).  New York: Routledge. 

            Rosengren, K. E. & Windahl, S.  (1972).  “Mass media consumption as a functional alternative.”  In D. McQuail (Ed.) Sociology of Mass Communication; Selected readings (pp. 166-194).  Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.   

            Rubin, A. M.  (1983).  Television uses and gratifications: the interactions of viewing patterns and motivations.  Journal of Broadcasting, 27(1), p. 37-51.

            Rubin, A. M.  (1984).  Ritualized and instrumental television viewing.  Journal of Communication, 34(3), p. 67-77.

            Rubin, A. M.  (2002).  The uses and gratifications perspective of media effects.  In. J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.).  Media Effects: Advances in theory and research (pp. 525-548).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

            Rubin, A. M. & Windahl, S.  (1986).  The uses and dependency model of mass communication.  Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 3, p. 184-199.

            Ruggiero, T. E.  (2000).  Uses and gratifications theory in the 21st century.  Mass Communication & Society, 3(1), p. 3-37.

            Ryan, J. & Wentworth, W. M.  (1998).  Media and Society: The production of culture in the mass media.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

            Schrøder, K., Drotner, K., Kline, S. & Murray, C.  (2003).  Researching Audiences.  New York: Oxford University Press.

            Sherry, J. L, Lucas, K., Greenberg, B. S. & Lachlan, K.  (2006).  Video game use and gratifications as predicators of use and game preference.  In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (eds.).  Playing Video Games: Motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 213-224).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

            Spirek, M. M., Dervin, B., Nilan, M., & Martin, M.  (1999).  Bridging gaps between audience and media: a Sense-Making comparison of reader information needs in life-facing versus newspaper reading contexts.  The Electronic Journal of Communication/La Revue Electronique de Communication, 9(2-4), online.

            Swanson, D. L.  (1977).  The uses and misuses of uses and gratifications.  Human Communication Research, 3(3), p. 214-221.

            Swanson, D. L.  (1987).  Gratification seeking, media exposure, and audience interpretations: Some directions for research.  Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 31(3), p. 237-254.

            Swanson, D. L.  (1992).  Understanding audiences: Continuing contributions of gratifications research.  Poetics, 21, p. 305-328.

            Taylor, D. S.  (1992).  Application of the uses and dependency model of mass communication to development communication in the western area of Sierra Leone (Doctoral Dissertation, Kent State University, 1991).  Dissertation Abstracts International, A52/12, 4134.

            Wenner, L. A.  (1982).  Gratificatons sought and obtained in program dependency: A study of network evening news programs and 60 Minutes.  Communication Research, 9(4), p. 539-560.

            Wenner, L. A.  (1985).  “Transaction and media gratifications research.”  In K.E. Rosengren, L.A. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.) Media Gratification Research: Current Perspectives (pp. 73-94).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.   

            Wenner, L. A.  (1986).  Model specification and theoretical development in gratifications sought and obtained research: A comparison of discrepancy and transactional approaches.  Communication Monographs, 53, p. 160-179.

            Windahl, S.  (1981).  “Uses and gratifications at the crossroads.”  In G.C. Wilhoit & H. de Bock (Eds.).  Mass Communication Review Yearbook (pp. 174-185).  Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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            Zillmann, D.  (1988a).  Mood management through communication choices.  American Behavioral Scientist, 31(3), p. 327-340.

            Zillmann, D.  (1988b).  “Mood management: Using entertainment to full advantage.”  L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.).  Communication, Social Cognition and Affect (pp. 147-172).  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

 

Digital game players’ preferences: Analysis of situation and gender

(The literature review for this paper can be found in this previous post.)

Study overview

As indicated above, our purpose for this study was to enter the literature on gender differences in game playing with two variations on the extant literature.  One of these was to include male and female assessments of game playing gratifications and feature preferences in the same study, something rarely seen in prior literature.  The second was to examine how gender predictions of these measurements of game playing vary across game playing situations.  For purposes of this study, game playing situation was defined as each player’s report of a game they liked, a game they disliked, and an imagined game they desired.  We specified only guiding research questions rather than hypotheses given the paucity of empirical and theoretical work directly pertinent to our focus.  In general, we expected gender differences from past literature to be reconfirmed.  But, we expected situation differences as well.  And, we expected gender differences to be complicated and mitigated at least partially by situation differences.

RQ1: How do men and women players differ on their game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?

RQ2: How do the three game playing situations differ on the reported game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?

RQ3: To what extent do the player’s gender and the specific game playing situation interact to impact game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?

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Adolescents, Media Use, and Identity Formation

A long time ago, when I first started graduate school, one of my primary research interests was the role the media plays in forming people’s identities.  At the time, I researched everything I could on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of identity formation, to try to understand how the media could be involved in this process.  I have not done much to follow-up on this line of thinking, as I became more interested in understanding media reception as situated sense-making.  But I do like to share my thoughts on these matters, in case they help others.  It’s rough, but the core ideas are there.

Originally conceived: February 2004

Basic Paradigm: One’s psychology is determined by the physical limitations of the brain, as determined by one’s unique genetic structure, as a depository and processor, which both shapes and is shaped by social influences and cognitive capabilities, which may be obtained via behavioral training and other learning techniques, but also serves as the platform from which higher functions can occur, such as metacognition, and from which subconscious functions of a more psychodynamic level can occur, with possibly unconscious effects. (a)

model

Psychology will then act as a filter through which: (b) one’s changing biology will be interpreted and evaluated, and; (c) one’s changing social/cultural environment and situation will be interpreted and evaluated.

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On Transgressing Audiencehood: Web 2.0, Interactivity, and Becoming What We’ve Always Been

I think I have now determined what my main research trajectory will be, and I wanted to take the opportunity to organize these thoughts to provide the beginning of a structure for how to organize my research, past, present and future.

For awhile now, I’ve been convinced that how the new media has affected our understanding of “audience” is by highlighting certain behaviors that have always been a part of being an audience, or “audiencehood”, but were not due to the media technologies they engaged with and the sociocultural formations that influenced how they could behave.  We’ve heard of how the audience was characterized as being passive, as required to consume and not talk back.  This conceptualization was found in the early days of media studies, with the heightened concern about media effects on vulnerable populations.  This conceptualization was found in the traditional approaches to US broadcasting, positioning the “audience-as-consumer”, to be packaged and sold to advertisers.  While there was acknowledgement that people had the agency to choose, that agency was often thought to be lessened when in an era of restricted choices in media output.

However, this conceptualization has been repeatedly challenged since the 1970s.  In the academic realm, this challenge came from critical-cultural theories and uses-and-gratifications models that sought to empower the audience as meaning-makers in their media engagings.  With increases in media output, due to cable and satellite technologies, nichecasting began to replace broadcasting business models.  New technologies gave more control to the audience for deciding what to watch and when.  These “new media” helped to drive academic and public discourse on “audience activity”, moving away from passivity models and into physical and interpretive activity as moderating and mediating variables in media effects.

The focus on audience activity increased with the digital revolution, especially as it involved the evolution of the Internet into the central communication network for distributing and exhibiting media output.  Because the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, allowed for people to connect to one another and form communities, they were able to build fan communities online across time and space in ways that they could not in the physical, pre-Internet world.  Academics, and the industry, turned their attention to the Internet and other digital media technologies, such as DVR, for empowering the people by requiring them to be active in order to gain content from their media technologies.  Fan-scholars in particular began to celebrate the ability for people to organize and vocalize their affection and activities online.

Web_2.0_Map.svg

The paradigmatic shift into Web 2.0 has, on the one hand, heightened this discourse of empowering people by turning them into produsers or prosumers, but on the other hand it has also been met with increased calls for reducing the celebratory approach and a sometimes implicit technological deterministic approach.  The idea of the Internet spawning these activities has been challenged by media historians conducting research into how fans of film, television, radio, and comics have always been engaged in the types of activities for which the online fan communities are lauded.  The historical approach has helped us to understand that fan activities have always existed as they currently do — they may only be modified in how they are presented due to the technology through which they are produced, distributed, and exhibited.

Now, I am not saying that there are no differences between media technologies.  Obviously they are.  Each has a unique interface and a specific combination of communication channels that impact how the content is produced and engaged with for that technology.  However, I do not agree that the “new media”, which has been code for digital media technologies, produce as different of engaging situations as some new media scholars may assert.  While there are going to be differences, such differences should not be assumed to be primary and always there.  Similarities should be sought for as much as differences.

I make this assertion because of the historical research into media technologies that asserts that every medium was a “new medium” at the time of its introduction; that each new media technology underwent a period of revolution-evolution that, in some ways, show similar patterns for how people, individually and collectively, come to engage with it.  Being a new medium indicates that these technologies are undergoing a period of flux as societies and cultures determine how to “manage” them through developing rituals and conventions of use, and integrating the technology into the delicate, malleable and fluctuating fabric of societies and cultures.  As people develop practices and arrangements for using the new technology, it becomes more accepted into the people’s daily lives.

Now the main thing here is that people learn how to engage with the media, either through their own personal experiences or via instruction that comes formally or informally, such as through popular cultural portrayals of the technologies.  Each technology has a learning curve — and the newer the technology, the more unfamiliar the person is with it, then the steeper that learning curve may be if there are no analogs that the person can draw upon to help them engage with it.  But regardless of what type of media technology, whether it is “old media” or “new media”, we should be able to discern this learning, or sense-making, by investigating the sense-making within situations of engaging with that technology and its content.  I believe that by conducting such investigations would help us to understand the similarities as well as the differences in how people engage with and are affected by media technologies.

I believe that the Web 2.0 paradigm and the concern about interactivity as a dividing line between “old media” and “new media” has provided the opportunity to explore how people engage with all media to understand just what separates the new from the old.  I believe that we will find more similarities than we had expected by conducting such investigations into how people make sense of the media they engage with.  I believe that the notion of transgressing audiencehood, which some will claim has happened because of the Internet and more recently Web 2.0, because of empowerment through interactivity, happens with other media as well, drawing us back to the 1970s critical and cultural models of people interpretively interacting with media content.

Overall, I want to understand how the interactivity of the digital media and the Web 2.0 paradigm shift has changed: how the industry responds to the audience, how audience activity is defined and understood, and how people have actually always been engaging with the media, through their sense-making and appropriating, as we celebrate them for now.  I have started this trajectory with work: on gameplay marketing and experiments in interactive television to understand what the industry is doing; on virtual world television production, online fan identities, and gender negotiation in fandom to understand what is now audience activity; and on sense-making in a range of media technologies, from films to virtual worlds.

I hope to do more to strengthen this trajectory and this central idea: that we have always been active audience, interpretively and physically, regardless of the media technology we engage with to reach the content, but that the technology does certain impact the parameters of that activity for how we are active.  I hope to understand these parameters and how they impact what we are supposed to do, what we can do, and what we have to do to do what we want to do.

Teenagers Using Media Texts for Sexual Identity Exploration

What turns me on, turns me off?: Usage of media texts by adolescents for sexual identity exploration.

(A graduate school psychology final paper, edited for posting, with link containing the full paper.)

When the audience for the media and its content is children, research into the mass media typically focuses on two mediated “sins”: violence and sex.  Regarding sex, the concern is that the depiction of sex in and by the media will cause children to think about and engage in more sex than they would were they not expose.  However, this is only one possible relationship the audience can have with media texts.  The media may indeed inadvertently teach norms to a viewing public, but the viewing public may also seek out the media for a variety of reasons.  In their usage of the media, the audience may satisfy some desire, need or simple curiosity, and in gaining this satisfaction they may in turn think, feel or behave in a certain way other than had that gap not been filled.  Media usage is another means of approaching the relationship between young viewer, sex in the media and effect on attitudes and behaviors, and such a relationship may be rather prevalent among adolescents as they negotiate their sense of self as a sexual being.

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This conception of an active audience using the media and/or its content to satisfy some gap is at the core of the uses and gratifications (UG) theory of mass media.  Conceptually the flipside of the concern that the media will affect all viewers the same way, the UG theory would predict that adolescents in the process of sexual identity negotiation would seek out and use those media that are perceived as being advantageous sources of sexual information or other sexual gratifications.  Receiving these gratifications may then influence the adolescent’s senses of identity, of sexuality, of sexual identity, and thus may in turn impact attitudes and possibly even behaviors.  Hence, the theory is that mediated sexual information/entertainment (MSIE) is selectively sought, interpreted, and utilized as adolescents explore their sense of sexual self.  This literature review investigates the research that shows the uses adolescents make of the mass media in terms of sexual data, and the gratifications and possible effects they experience from this usage.

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Cultivated Learning Theory: Graduate school, year one

In the theory class of the first semester of my first year as a graduate student, I was in a group with two other MA hopefuls, and we wrote a paper on how we would study the topic of how the media influences adolescents’ and young adults’ sexual behaviors.  Always the clever one, I termed this paper “The Birds and the Bees” as we focused on the media as one of the socialization institutions that inform how young people think about and feel about sex.

For the paper, we had to conduct a review of the research on the topic and consider the variety of theoretical perspectives used to understand the phenomena under consideration.  So we dutifully dived into the library’s databases and found people discussing sex and the media from the lens of cultivation theory, social learning theory, priming theory, excitation transfer theory, and the uses and gratifications perspective.  Based on what we saw as the strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches, and the studies that result from or informed them, we developed our own theoretical framework to guide a potential study.

We called it “cultivated learning theory”, and depicted it with this rather crude illustration of how the variables related to one another (I even trademarked it back in 2003).

The basic idea behind this theory is that it allows for the ability for one socializing agent to “out-influence” the other socializing agents, thus having a measurable impact on behavior.

What follows are excerpts from the class paper to explain why we ended up with cultivated learning theory.  The full paper can be found here as a .pdf.

As we are interested in ascertaining whether or not exposure to sex, be it implicit or explicit, can impact a young person’s actual sexual behavior, we necessarily have to narrow down our focus from what has been done in the past.  We will not rely on the tenets of uses and gratifications.  Uses and gratifications could help us understand why some people seek out and use sexual media, but this is in essence the opposite direction of causality than the one we are interested in studying.  Excitation transfer theory is better at explaining short term arousal effects.  While in the direction we are interested in, the specificity of the situation it requires is too narrow for our interests.  While priming could help us understand the cognitive process linking viewing to behavior, including it into out theoretical framework could be at the expense of considering more comprehensive alternatives.  Thus, we will not specify cognitive processes right now.  This leaves us to focus on cultivation theory and social learning theory.

Cultivation theory postulates a mainstream media’s ability to cultivate certain perceptions and attitudes about societal norms.  The theory can tell us about how cumulative exposure could cause the fostering of certain cognitions.  Social learning theory postulates a person’s ability to learn a behavior from a rewarded positive model seeing the model perform this behavior after several attempts.  This theory can tell us about how one can learn a behavior from the media.  However, there are some behaviors that have taboos associated with them.  Sexual behavior may be one such behavior.  If all other socializing agents are saying “Don’t have sex before marriage”, then will watching two or three portrayals of men and women enjoying sex be enough to overcome the stigma associated with it?  If this is the case, then social learning theory may not be enough to explain media’s impact on teenage sexual behavior.

Thus, we are constructing a theory that combines cultivation and social learning, which we dub cultivated learning theory.  In cases where behaviors have taboos associated with them, such that these behaviors would be construed as inappropriate, individuals may require added encouragement to enact these behaviors.  As socializing agents can influence an individual’s perception of social and cultural norms, repeated exposure to any one agent, which advocates a perception of reality in some way different from true reality, may cause a skewed perception of social and cultural reality.  Cultivation theory predicts that mass media, in the form of television, can have this impact.  Thus, repeated exposure to this alternate perception can foster the internalization of these skewed norms as the “truth of reality”, so that when an individual makes a behavioral decision, it will be based on these skewed norms and no longer restricted by the actual societal and cultural taboos.  In this way, repeated exposure to an altered perception of social and cultural reality can lead to the enactment of behaviors that are sponsored by the socializing agent(s) that fostered those perceptions.  In addition, there may be some personal characteristics of the individual that can influence this relationship between perceptions and behavior, either strengthening or weakening the influence of the socializing agents.

What this boils down to is that any of the five agents can exert enough influence to have an individual perform behaviors based on their perception of reality.  The Catholic Church can have families severely discipline their children.  A friend can apply pressure to try drugs.  The media can show so much sex without repercussions that a teenager thinks it is the thing to do in a romantic relationship.  But there could be enough influence from a different agent so as to mitigate this effect.  Thus, the theory accounts for not only the influence of any one agent, or perhaps agents working in conjunction, but also how any agents may interact with each other.  In addition, the personality of the individual is not discounted, but seen as a filter through which the cultivating influences flow.  So, if a person is high on sensation-seeking, the influence of repeated exposure to the media may heighten the result in comparison to someone lower in sensation-seeking.  This is where the lack of specifying cognitive processes comes into play, because any process could differ from individual to individual.

For the purpose of investigating the limitations and problems we discussed about past studies, cultivated learning theory would predict that cumulative exposure to televised portrayals of positive depictions of sex could in time cause adolescents and young adults to engage in these same behaviors, if there is no influence from another socializing agent that exerts as powerful a counter-force.  Indeed, a study done by Jensen, de Gaston & Weed (1994) noted that teenagers perceive great pressure from the media and other socializing agents to engage in sex, but some also report receiving contradictory encouragement to abstain from their parents.  Cultivated learning theory would predict that those receiving no counter-encouragement from their parents would be the teenagers most likely to engage in sex, and those who receive the most counter-encouragement, despite their media consumption, would be the least likely to engage in sexual activity.

Cultivated learning theory did not go beyond that particular class.  I toyed with how to explain it better, but I never used it to frame any research, and my two group-mates got their MAs and went back into the professional world.

Maybe someday I will return to this theory.  It needs refinement, particularly through empirical studies, in order for it to become something more than a thought experiment.  Because while it does make theoretical sense, so, too, did flat-earth and geocentric convictions at one time or another.

So, Why Did the Media Fail You?

[This post comes from a 2005 research proposal studying how the media was perceived as hindering people.  The entire proposal, with full citations and references, can be found here.]

Broadcasting or traditional media have been studied by the uses and gratifications perspective (UGP) to uncover the reasons people use traditional media (television, radio, newspapers, even film), and as a means of understanding how the gratification of the need can result in the media affecting the user.  The perspective is concerned with how an individual’s motives generate expectations of the media, which leads to certain types of media use in the hope of gratifying the initial need, while at the same time possibly resulting in other consequences.  UGP is essentially an umbrella, describing a research interest, and by itself does not theorize the why’s and how’s of the relationship between the need, the user and the media.  It has instead served as the paradigmatic foundation from which various media choice, use and attributes theories have sprung.  While UGP has focused on creating typologies of gratifications sought and obtained, there has been less research in the paradigm as to how traditional media fails to gratify the user or the context from which the motivations to use the media arise.

The purpose of this study was to investigate what led media users to be dissatisfied with their interaction with the media.  Possible reasons may be found in the characteristics of the medium, its message, the situation, the situation-specific needs of the user, or some combination thereof.  As this study focused on the content analysis of an already completed qualitative/quantitative interview, the main goal was to understand the perceived characteristics the users saw as the cause of their dissatisfaction.  This goal was chosen to empirically and theoretically illuminate certain aspects at the core of UGP that have remained in the dark, as well as providing insight into the practical application of the mass media in everyday life.

What UGP tells us, and what it doesn’t

While UGP has been criticized for being atheoretical, the perspective has generated a number of theories designed to explain the relationship between an individual’s needs, their media use and the effects of this use on themselves and subsequent media interactions.

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