Communication & Media Psychology: Understanding Processing to Understand Processes


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ON 31 July 2013, Dr. Nick Bowman was invited to give a guest lecture as part of the colloquium series hosted by Instituts für Kommunikationswissenschaft (IfK) der Universität Münster (Institute of Communication Science at the University of Muenster). For his talk, Dr. Bowman gave an overview of his larger research program aimed at understanding the many different processes by which media users select and make sense of their media messages.

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  • Some quick background notes on me, so that we can frame this presentation a bit. I’ve a background in professional media – mainly in journalism with experience as a sports broadcaster (radio) and some time with print and online publications back in my native St. Louis (both as a reporter and as an editor and designer). T’was a neat career but as I became more involved in the institutional processes surrounding news production, there seemed to be a larger question, “When we produce a story, what happens next?” I felt in some ways that we were more of a production-oriented than results-oriented industry (which makes sense, as our job from the ‘objective’ school of thought was “We report, You decide.”) but time spent in public relations and legislative affairs taught me a good deal about the ways in which news goes from “event” to “story” as we see it. I didn’t take so much a cynical approach as I did a critical, and this pushed me to get a better understanding of message reception, which lead me to quit my (rather comfy, surprisingly) job and go back to school for at least two more college degrees. After my four years with Ron Tamborini and Co. at Michigan State University, I adopted a particular focus on media psychology as related to how we process interactive media – focusing on experimental methods to replicate and make sense of message processing (from selection to retention to eventual influence) and using path analyses and other “advanced” regression techniques to demonstrate these processes empirically. This influence drives my work even today.
  • When we commonly think of “media effects” research, our collective focus – at least, as is perceived by the general public – is often of a “moral panic” variety. Notions of the magic bullet effect or hypodermic needle model of media as having a (a) powerful, (b) direct, and (c) universal impact on individuals seem to persist. This Quixotic quest for media’s influence on us all tends to adopt the stance of Ms. Lovejoy, begging us to “please think of the children” and protect them from media’s impact.
  • So, I propose that we do exactly as Ms. Lovejoy beg us, and focus directly on the individual media consumer – the children, adolescents, and adults using these messages (and their technologies) in an effort to seek information, form relationships, persuade one another and be entertained. As it turns out, the manner in which we use and process media are just as important (if not more so) in explaining it’s impact on us. That is, we have to continue to implicate the role of the organism – in this case, the user – in the media effects process. By definition, messages in themselves have no inherent meaning; it us up to a body to make sense of them. Thus, this “sense-making” has become an increasingly-focal part of my research as a scholar of media psychology: that intersection of ‘media’ and ‘human experiences’.
  • This focus on the organism is not at all new to science, nor is it new to social science. Wilbur Schramm introduced much of the field of Communication Studies to the notion of moderating and mediating variables in the late 1950s (as least in the US, Schramm is often considered one of the fathers of modern Communication Science), and in 1960, Joseph Klapper wrote
  • One of the more unique questions – at least to me as somebody who is very interested in the study of interactivity – is the concept of mood-driven selective exposure. Zillmann and Bryant wrote a volume on the topic in 1985 in proposing the “affect-dependent model of stimulus arrangement” suggesting our media choices to be an ‘easily manipulated’ aspect of our (social and physical) environment that we could arrange in order to attain an optimal mood state. How does this work? They discuss the notions of arousal regulation (We can something arouse us?), intervention potential (can something distract our mind?), hedonic valence (what is the tone of a message?), and behavioral affinity (how close is something to the root cause of our current mood?) and suggest that different state moods cause us to want more or less of these dimensions. For example, bored individuals would be more likely to want high arousal and high intervention potential while stressed persons would want low arousal and high intervention potential – both leading to a “balanced” mood states.So, what about video games? We might suggest games to be “better” mood managers because they require more of our attention (“active play” compared to “passive watch”) but they also are designed to arouse our senses (not always so desired). The question was proposed back in 2006, but received very little scholarly attention with exception of some of Art Raney’s folks (and myself).
  • When randomly-assigned to task demand conditions following a mood manipulation (boredom, marked by low affect and arousal, and stress, marked by high affect and low arousal) we find that the prescription of low task demand does little for changing one’s mood. Both bored and stressed individuals benefitted from a moderate level of mood demand as would be expected, because such a condition provided enough of a cognitive resource distraction to ruminate in their current bad mood. However, only bored individuals benefited from higher levels of task demand – this was also expected, as we argued that bored individuals would experience mood repair as a function of increased intervention potential and increased arousal from a highly-demanding experience (for stressed individuals, this increased arousal would only served to exacerbate their stress, as was witness in this study).
  • When allowing participants the choice to selectively expose themselves to different media conditions, the our story becomes slightly different – but not too much and not without post-hoc explanation. First, as expected we see almost nobody choosing low levels of task demand following a mood manipulation (and, of the seven total people who chose low task demand, a second look at the data showed them to all be in a rather neutral mood state before-hand!). The moderate condition was the most popular as would be expected from the first study, as it had the greatest (expected) potential to repair mood. We also noticed more folks that we would expect (particularly in the stress induction) choosing the high task demand version of our game *and* experiencing the greatest levels of mood repair as a result. Again, post-hoc data analysis showed us a rather odd situation in which participants who eventually chose the high task demand game were actually (and significantly) in lower moods at the onset of gameplay. Thus, they were in particularly low affective states and thus, it’s not too surprising that the would look for extreme levels of task demand to help them “get out of their funk”.
  • Another area of research that I’ve been increasingly involved in – in large part due to the influence of Mary Beth Oliver as well as Ron Tamborini and Art Raney (to name a few) has been in exploring the area of media entertainment as being something “beyond enjoyment.” Perhaps one of the leading pieces of scholarship here is a piece by Oliver and Raney (I think you’ve hosted both of them at the University) in which they talk about the hedonic roots of enjoyment (media as “fun, arousing and pleasurable”) as contrasted with the eudiamonic roots of appreciation (media as “pensive, reflective and introspective).Much of this started with Oliver’s discussion of the “paradox of sad films” but as we look at the increasingly diverse media sphere – both in form and content, given a renewed focus on narrowcast and tailored content to smaller, more well-defined audiences – we might take this study up to better understand video games. As a media form, video games have evolved beyond the base functions of puzzles: challenge and skill presentations more akin to chess than to any Hollywood thriller. Players are asked now to understand increasingly-complex plot narratives while at the same time make sense of vivid and interactive virtual environments.
  • But, what makes a game focus on “fun” as compared to “insight”? If we look at the above images (sorry for the “Inception-style frames” as these come from one of my earlier presentations), we might see how some games are designed to focus more on one or the other. If we look at the left-side images, we see a video game designed to highlight fast-paced fighting mechanics: Street Fighter, a true exercise in lightning-fast eye-hand coordination and pattern recognition (contrasted with Heavy Rain, whose user interface consisted of rather basic real-time animations triggered by singular timed button presses). Here, the focus of gameplay seems much more in-line with helping players feel autonomous and competent while playing (determinants of enjoyment according to Tamborini et al., 2012). On the right-hand side, we see the use of motion-capture technologies in order to (a) capture intense and high-fidelity emotions of a single player/character compared to the same technology used to (b) better replicate the bat swing of a baseball player with little focus on any ‘mo-cap’ that doesn’t include the swing itself. Here, we might argue that the facial ‘mo-cap’ is specific to capturing the empathy of an important protagonist or antagonist so we might better identify with him or her as part of a larger narrative world; for the baseball player, the ‘mo-cap’ is purely functional to the gameplay.
  • So here, we can look at how different mechanics of video games – such as gameplay, sound and story (really focusing on the first and third ones) – can drive gaming experiences. While we do see direct associations between (a) gameplay and enjoyment and (b) story and appreciation, we see these paths significantly moderated by the satisfaction of discrete needs, such as (a) competence and autonomy for gameplay and (b) relatedness and insight for story. This makes sense, as we “enjoy” mastering challenges of our own accord, and we “appreciate” the depth of character plight. NOTE: We also see in here an association between story and enjoyment, but that path is mediated by an influence on autonomy (that is, stories are enjoyable when they allow us to “go our own way” to some extent).
  • As might be expected by theory, the satisfaction of psychological needs explains a good bit of the variance in both enjoyment and appreciate. This being said, there is still room for improvement (cf. Tamborini et al., 2012). Thus, we wondered if the inclusion of needs associated with character attachment (Lewis et al., 2008) might help fill in some of the gaps here?
  • So, if we’re able to report (a) a somewhat-qualitative differences between notions of enjoyment and appreciation and (b) separate the variance explained by each of these factors as a function of gameplay (the former) and game narrative (the latter), then we might adopt Lang et al’s L4MCP model and wonder to ourselves (c) at what point do we see gameplay and game narrative as opposing rather than complimentary forces? After all, if we only have a limited capacity to process information and games are increasing taxing these resources (such as the task demand research referenced earlier), we might wonder if “more really is more.” In fact, talking with game producers and executives casually, we often hear reports that “serious games have to be easy enough for the gamer to process the narrative” and, from a media psychology standpoint this assumptions seems to bear itself out.
  • Looking at these images, which of them would you classify as violent? Are some images more violent than others? What about the context of the images, and their narrative justification? Might your opinion change if some or all of them were contextualized?
  • In our research, we’ve continued to argue that concepts such as violence are not uni-dimensional – or at least, have a level of second-order uni-dimensionality to them that is rarely examined. This seems odd, given the prominence of violence research in our field (perhaps because a base taxonomy of violence as a “more or less” construct is suitable for many of the studies currently published). Yet, when we look into the ways in which audience members process “violent” content, we see that the process is far more complicated than a singular judgment.
  • So, this was interesting. Potter and his colleagues reported that notions of graphicness were the core determinant of media violence (much of our work was inspired by him and his colleagues at UC-Santa Barbara), yet in those studies participants didn’t actually use media. Our study presented individuals with mock media products in the form of movie and video game reviews (NOTE: If you click on either of the Tables above, you’ll be taken to a Google Video page with the different film previews in this study) and then had participants rate their (a) perceptions of violence and (b) perceptions of the media products being advertised. What did we find? It seemed that justification was by far the most important determinant when trying to decide if something was violent or not. Products in which portrayed “violence” was unjustified were seen as most violent – which corroborates well with Zillmann’s (2000) arguments related to audience’s need for justice restoration (we want to see a “just” media world, which I believe Raney makes similar claims). When looking at preferences, the most preferred products were ones that showed realistic portrayals that were seen as somewhat violent – and even here, violence was preferred when it showed realistic and justified violence.
  • Defining violence as a “many-splintered” thing allows us to get a much better understanding of the processes by which audiences comprehend and respond to violence. In a recent interview with BBC, I explained that a focus on processing likely will result in explaining much more of the variance in media effects, albeit under a very limited set of circumstances. Such research also helps us better create and control violent portrayals – for example, in our data graphicness was the least important determinant as to something being “violent” or not yet so much of the legislation on obscenity focuses on “blood and gore” as being the “answer” to softening up violent portrayals. Such efforts, at least based on our data, might be misdirected. The fact that justification was so important – that unjustified and wanton acts were really what are considered “violent” – is very much in line with Ian Bogost (2012) and his discussions of disgust and disinterest: that “wrong violence is wrong” and the fact that we process that way is probably more pro-social than anti-social.
  • Yet another area of research is a general focus on decision-making in virtual worlds. One the one hand, the decisions we are allowed to make in these spaces are restricted by the programming of the worlds themselves – we can only do what the designers allow us to do (re: autonomy). At the same time, when these worlds are presented in more abstract manners, we expect little out of them (re: Mori (1970) and the Uncanny Valley). However, what about worlds that are becoming increasingly vivid and interactive – what are our expectations then? Some might suggest that as the worlds become more “real” or “of our world” that we might begin to behave in a more “real” way. Indeed our own research (Joeckel et al, 2012) demonstrated that triggering salient moral violations led to a significant decrease in “immoral behavior.” So we wondered, “can we trigger habits?”
  • In this study, we assessed the physical activity norms of a group of “randomly” selected college students, and then had they play home-made versions of Grand Theft Auto – San Andreas: a three-dimensional video game typical of many “sandbox” games. Our version was customized to strip out the game violence, and then randomly assign them to play either a mission-based or freeplay-based game selection (click ‘Mountaineer Man’ for more on the methodology). The paper – still being developed – has some much more compelling arguments and data, including individual behavioral choices across several video game conditions. However, these regression models perhaps make the cleanest point. When we looked at predictors of “physical activity choices” in our video game (from walking to riding a bicycle to driving a car, in order of most- to least-strenuous), we see the pattern of predictors change rather drastically as a function of one’s physical activity norms. For individuals whose physical activity norms are dominated by walking, their in-game transportation choices were driven by individual characteristics, such as skill at the game and feelings about their body image. However, for individuals who did not walk in daily life, their in-game decisions seemed dictated by components of the game itself (such as the mission).
  • Why does this data matter? Well, here we are less interested in physical activity per se (although there are a fair number of game researchers who are) we might suggest that it’s evidence that there are conditions by which (a) habits can transfer spaces and (b) when they might not. Games can be designed to be played in such a way as to maximize our “real” norms of behavior, such as giving us a specific task to engage in. This is important because so much of the “moral panic” research on video games seems to suggest that all witnessed behaviors are negative and game-specific, but this data suggests that players bring some of their own agency to the game environment – including habitual agency they might not even be consciously aware of.
  • As we wrap up the presentation, there’s a few more projects at various stages that I’d like to draw your attention to – each is linked if you want to see the original citation and/or read more about the area of research. In general, I think that all of these help us better understand processes of media usage and comprehension that I hope aid us in better understanding what we currently call “media” effects.
  • Mood inductionsConsistent with prior research (Bryant and Zillmann, 1984; Mastro et al., 2002), participants were induced into either boredom or stressful affective states.Each induction required participants to perform a particular task for 20 minutes. For the boredom induction, participants were given a large box of metal washers and asked to thread them onto a length of string for the entire session. For the stress induction, participants were asked to complete a booklet of difficult logic puzzles designed to exceed their talents. Furthermore, participants in the boredom induction were left to their own volition whereas participants in the stress induction were under constant pressure from an experimenter to perform better. Participants were only provided 45 to 90 seconds per puzzle before being forced to move to the next question while instructing the participants that incorrect or missing questions would result in negative score evaluations that might impact their eligibility for the study.
  • Procedure Participants (N = 110, 63 females, M age = 20.5, SD = 1.62, n = 62 upper-level undergraduates) were recruited to participate in a study on playing video games from a large, mid-Atlantic university, and were given course credit for participation. After obtaining informed consent, participants were randomly assigned to play a custom-made version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA; Rockstar Games, 2004) with either a closed-ended waypoint mission or an open-ended freeplay mission. Prior to gameplay, participants were asked to complete a short demographic profile along with measures of self-reported video game play and physical activity lifestyle habits. They were also given a tutorial with the video game in the form of a custom-created level that allowed them to practice walking, bicycling, and driving controls prior to the experimental game session (these being the three transportation choices available in-game). Following gameplay, participants were asked questions regarding body shame and presence. Experimental sessions lasted between 20 and 30 minutes in total, with 10 to 15 minutes of this devoted to gameplay.
  • Abstract The study of the player-avatar relationship has been central to scholars of video games and virtual worlds. Work has attempted to explain the relationship by focusing on the technologies of social presence, the socio-emotional relationship between players and avatars as distinct social others, the capability of players to adopt the personae of their avatars, and the psychological merging of player and avatar as a unified person. While these approaches are useful in explaining specific forms and types of player-avatar relationships, they tend to adopt qualitatively-different approaches to the phenomenon that limit their ability to inform one another and, in turn, our understanding of the holistic player-avatar experience. To this end, the following paper demonstrates how player-avatar archetypes generated from narrative analysis can be reanalyzed for dimensions of character attachment to highlight intersections with agency and intimacy, and suggests the utility of such an approach to understanding the larger video game entertainment experience.
  • Communication & Media Psychology: Understanding Processing to Understand Processes

    1. 1. COMMUNICATION & MEDIA PSYCHOLOGY: UNDERSTANDING PROCESSING TO UNDERSTAND PROCESSES Bowman, N.D. 31 July 2013 Universität Münster Media and Interaction Lab
    2. 2. OUTLINE • Task Demand as Selective Exposure • Pleasures as Control + Cognition • Violence as a Many-Splintered Thing • Real Habits as Virtual Behaviors
    3. 3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Jaime Banks Frank Biocca Ian Bogost Jennings Bryant Yen-Shen Chen Mun-Young Chung Elizabeth Cohen Leyla Dogruel Allison Eden Sven Joeckel Alexander Lancaster Ryan Lange Amanda Lange Mary Beth Oliver Brett Sherrick Art Raney Ryan Rogers Christina Schumann Daniel Schultheiss John Sherry Ron Tamborini Rene Weber Julia Woolley Many, Many More
    4. 4. BACKGROUND Communication & Media Psychology
    5. 5. WHO AM I? • BA/MA, U Missouri-St. Louis • Fmr. media professional • PhD, Michigan State U • Experimental research • Path analyses as process models
    6. 6. S  O  R Stimulus Response
    7. 7. S  O  R Stimulus Response Organism
    8. 8. S  O  R
    9. 9. THE “MEAT” Communication & Media Psychology
    10. 10. • Are video games good mood managers? – YES: they are more distracting that other forms of media – NO: they are too complicated • Question posted by Bryant and Davies (2006) with very little empirical follow-up TASK DEMAND AS SELECTIVE EXPOSURE
    13. 13. PLEASURES OF CONTROL + COGNITION • Games tend to feature “adolescent fantasies of gladiator battles and zombie shootouts” • 2009 = Year of the “Grown-Up” Game • Can games be both fun and meaningful?
    15. 15. PLEASURES OF CONTROL + COGNITION • 97.6% fun vs. 71.9% meaningful • “insight” as separate need • “Pleasure of Control” • “Pleasure of Cognition”
    16. 16. PLEASURES OF CONTROL + COGNITION Enjoyment Appreciation Step 1: Controls Gender -.05 -.22*** Age -.09 -.10+ ∆R2 .01 .06*** Step 2: Intrinsic Needs Competence .47*** -.02 Autonomy .13* .02 Relatedness .01 .36*** Insight -.05 .58*** ∆R2 .28*** .69*** Step 3: CA Identification -.08 -.01 Suspension of Disbelief .00 .03 Control .12* -.06+ Responsibility -.08 .10** ∆R2 .02+ .01+
    17. 17. PLEASURES OF CONTROL + COGNITION • Implications
    18. 18. • Which of these is violent? VIOLENCE AS A MANY-SPLINTERED THING
    19. 19. • Content is not “just” violent VIOLENCE AS A MANY-SPLINTERED THING
    20. 20. VIOLENCE AS A MANY-SPLINTERED THING • Blood Reign (+G, -R, -J) – Very Violent – Least Preferred • Bloody Justice (+G, +R, +J) – Most Violent – Most* Preferred • Underlord (-G, +R, -J) – Somewhat Violent – Most Preferred • Mystic Battle (-G, -R, +J) – Least Violent – Somewhat Preferred
    21. 21. VIOLENCE AS A MANY-SPLINTERED THING • Of course, this all focused on enjoyment…but what about appreciation? • Narrative justification vs. user justification
    22. 22. REAL HABITS AS VIRTUAL BEHAVIOR • How virtual is virtual? – Media used in habit training – Our minds don‟t separate “actual” and “virtual”
    23. 23. Walking as dominant lifestyle activity Step one Video game skill -.382 -3.05 .004 Body shame .338 2.71 .010 F(2,47) = 12.6 p < .001 R2 = .348 Step two Video game skill -.387 -3.08 .003 Body shame .326 2.59 .013 Experimental condition (0 = waypoint, 1 = freeplay) -.109 -.919 .363 F(4,46) = .844 p = .363 ΔR2 = .012 REAL HABITS AS VIRTUAL BEHAVIOR β T Sig. Walking not dominant lifestyle activity Step one Video game skill -.264 -1.72 .093 Body shame .165 1.07 .289 F(2,47) = 3.78 p = .030 R2 = .139 Step two Video game skill -.189 -1.24 .221 Body shame .218 1.45 .154 Experimental condition (0 = waypoint, 1 = freeplay) -.285 -2.21 .039 F(3,46) = 4.50 p = .039 ΔR2 = .077
    24. 24. REAL HABITS AS VIRTUAL BEHAVIOR • Implications – , in decreasingly-”virtual” spaces, real habits = virtual habits – IDs external predictors of observed game choices
    25. 25. OTHER PUBLISHED OR IN PROGRESS WORK • How does the presence of an audience influence the media experience? – Makes us try harder (Media Psychology [link]) – Induces contagion (NCA „13 Top Paper [link]) • How might moral salience influence media usage? – Results in variable content in different (sub)cultures (Mass Communication and Society [link]) – Transforms “game (random)” behaviors to “gut (biased” ones (Media Psychology [link]) • How does character identification work? – Allows us to use avatars as tools or as social beings (AoIR „13 [link]) – Explains pro-social and anti-social gameplay (CyberPsychology [link] Side-Projects • “Big Data” privacy perceptions & networked cultures • Corporate cyber-bullying • Social media & sports • Subjective quality in games • Learning German • Understanding Canada • Consuming *all of the media*
    26. 26. FOR MORE INFORMATION • Nick Bowman, Ph.D. [CV] Twitter (@bowmanspartan) Skype (nicholasdbowman) Media and Interaction Lab