[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.
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.
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
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