After studying the assigned reading The Handbook of Communication Science, Second Edition: Chapter 20: “Media Entertainment” and considering the topic of parasocial relationships, answer the following questions or prompts.
A) Identify a character in a show with whom you have developed (in the past or present) a parasocial relationship. Remember, this person can be “real” or a character role. Explain why this character/person is compelling to you.
B) How do you “know” or view this character outside of their role on the show? Have they influenced you in any way besides the aspect of entertainment?
C) Explain any emotional attachment to the character or person. Have they disappointed you? Motivated you? How and why?
Support your responses with research from the Learning Resources. Use APA in-text citations where necessary and cite any outside sources. Create an APA Reference List at the end of the document.
Chapter 20: Media Entertainment
· By: Christoph Klimmt & Peter Vorderer
· Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.umgc.edu/10.4135/9781412982818.n20
Media entertainment has become an established field of communication science. Despite the pervasiveness of entertainment media and audiences, as well as their social, economic, and even political relevance, the amount of published research regarding the phenomenon was small for several decades. Interestingly, Katz and Foulkes criticized the lack of entertainment research as early as 1962. Today, the importance of media entertainment within modern societies is no longer debated (Wolf, 1999), and thematic research has grown considerably, beginning in the 1970s and booming since the late 1990s (Zillmann & Vorderer, 2000). The prosperity of entertainment research is fuelled mainly by two key characteristics of this research domain: Entertainment media and their consumption experiences are (a) highly diverse and (b) developing rapidly (e.g., Bryant & Vorderer, 2006), which creates a wide range of questions for and social relevance of entertainment research. The demand for theory construction, as well as empirical research, replication, and application, is high, driven both by fundamental research’s mission to describe and explain relevant phenomena and by dynamic industries calling for applied studies on ever-new platforms, forms, and content of media entertainment.
Historical Roots and Early Developments
The first waves of mediated mass entertainment, such as low-cost novels in the second half of the 19th century or picture-rich newspapers in the early 20th century (Engel, 1997), did not stimulate much scientific concern. The advent of radio entertainment and cinemas showing films revealed the importance of entertainment in mass societies to elites (e.g., Carey, 1993). We may consider the minimal scientific activity that occurred during this era to be the beginning of systematic entertainment research, especially Herzog’s (1944) surveys on the motives of American women to listen to radio soap operas. These radio shows were probably the most popular entertainment product of the 1930s and 1940s. Produced in an industrialized manner and implementing advanced business models such as product placement, they regularly reached huge audiences. This study of the motivations driving selective exposure to one important genre of media entertainment was pioneering work for the field. It first introduced the issue of media enjoyment to scientific consideration instead of ignoring the entertainment factor in favor of issues of (undesired) media effects.
Katz and Foulkes (1962) elaborated a motivational framework for entertainment consumption. Their concept of “escapism” explained the preference for entertainment media as the desire to contrast negative experiences of everyday life, which is accomplished through “identification” with the world of entertainment media and temporary withdrawal from stressful real-life circumstances (see also Pearlin, 1959). The foundational contribution of this work to early entertainment research is the psychological-theoretical perspective on people’s motivation to select media entertainment repeatedly. In addition, the discussion of experiential processes such as “identification,” which underlie enjoyment experiences, paved the way for one of the most important branches of contemporary entertainment research (Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004).
These and a few other pieces of early entertainment research remained isolated and unique within communication science for at least another decade, partly because mass entertainment was not considered academically relevant or deserving of intellectual analysis (e.g., Munch-Petersen, 1973). Especially in Europe, elite preferences for traditional, “classic,” and “serious” literature and arts were reflected in scientific ignorance concerning entertainment media (Bark, 1973). The opportunities for entertainment research finally appeared in the 1970s for two main reasons. Outside of the academic system, societal change following political movements in the late 1960s stimulated research explicitly devoted to overcoming elitist attitudes regarding “quality” literature and media (“ideology-critical research”; cf. Groeben & Vorderer, 1988). Within academia, entertainment consumption was discovered to be a relevant topic to the psychology of emotion (Planalp, Metts, & Tracy, Chapter 21, this volume). Affective experiences triggered by comedy, pornography, mediated sports, and other modes of media entertainment attracted the attention of psychologists, especially Percy Tannenbaum (1980) and his mentee, Dolf Zillmann. Building on general foundations from the psychology of emotion and applying experimental methods from psychology to the study of users of media entertainment, Zillmann and his early collaborators—most important, Joanne Cantor and Jennings Bryant—formed and shaped the beginnings of systematic, theory-driven inquiry on media entertainment, which still guides and informs contemporary approaches (Bryant, Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Cantor, 2003).
Universal Theories of Media Entertainment
While the importance of media entertainment has been acknowledged in the communication discipline, the definition of media entertainment remains problematic. A substantial variety of message genres, forms, and contents can be classified as “entertaining,” both from the perspective of communicators (e.g., authors of novels, TV stations that broadcast comedy) and from the perspective of audiences. Bosshart and Macconi (1998) list six characteristics of entertaining media messages. Entertainment is
· psychological relaxation—It is restful, refreshing, light, distracting;
· change and diversion—It offers variety and diversity;
· stimulation—It is dynamic, interesting, exciting, thrilling;
· fun—It is merry, amusing, funny;
· atmosphere—It is beautiful, good, pleasant, comfortable;
· joy—It is happy, cheerful. (p. 4)
These components can certainly serve as building blocks for a definition of media entertainment, albeit they are neither semantically nor conceptually distinct from each other. They reflect the diversity problem of entertainment researchers very well, however. An exciting, highly suspenseful sports broadcast is media entertainment, just as are a hilarious and intelligent television comedy, a spectacular action movie, a puzzle-rich adventure video game, a sad-romantic novel, and many more media genres and offerings. These few examples already indicate the large range of experiential qualities that media audiences (can) consider entertainment (Vorderer et al., 2004).
Consequently, simple, unidimensional concepts or processes can neither define nor scientifically explain media entertainment (Bryant & Vorderer, 2006). Rather, a multilevel structure is required for definitions and theories of media entertainment (see Figure 20.1): On a more abstract level, universal theories that cover the shared characteristics of all manifestations of media entertainment can connect entertainment to other large-scale domains of social science (e.g., psychological well-being, cf. Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 1999, or evolutionary psychology, cf. Steen & Owens, 2001). At a more specific level, object-related theories describe and explain the determinants and dimensions of individual experiential qualities definable as entertainment. For example, theories of suspense (Vorderer, Wulff, & Friedrichsen, 1996) address one major class of entertaining media messages and their effect on audiences; they do so without referring to other manifestations of media entertainment, such as melancholy or pride. Such object-level theories can vary concerning the description of the entertainment experience itself and the underlying psychological processes that trigger the experience. They can compete with each other and can undergo empirical testing (e.g., Mares & Cantor, 1992). So far, entertainment researchers have focused mostly on one of two levels of theory construction, that is, either suggested overarching frameworks (universal theories) or elaborated and tested object-specific theories (e.g., concerning the entertainment manifestation of suspense; cf. Zillmann, 1994).
Figure 20.1 Multilevel Structure of Entertainment Theories in Communication Science
Entertainment as Emotion Machine: Zillmann’s Framework
An important framework of media entertainment has grown out of Zillmann’s experimental research (Zillmann, 2003). His view of people’s responses to entertaining media messages focused on affective processes, and he applied his theory of human emotion to various modes of entertainment (cf. Bryant & Miron, 2003). According to Zillmann’s framework, affect regulation drives people’s motivational system, and external stimuli—including mass media messages—are useful tools either to sustain desired emotional states or to enter new states that differ from one’s current emotional condition. Grounded in biological and psychophysiological considerations (e.g., Zillmann & Zillmann, 1996), this framework models the use of media entertainment as an unmeditated type of behavior that is motivated by natural hedonistic preferences (Zillmann, 1988).
Key processes within the framework are the desire for mood regulation (“mood management”: Zillmann, 1988), empathic emotions that agents of mass media elicit (e.g., heroes of crime drama or players in sports broadcasts; cf. Zillmann, 1996a), and euphoria that results from excitatory relief during confrontation with rapidly changing situational characteristics such as the “happy ending” in suspense movies (Zillmann, 1996b). The framework includes cognitive processes only as components of emotional states. For instance, emotions of fear and hope are driven by empathy for a likeable movie character, and the consequent suspense is theorized to result from moral judgments about the character (Raney, 2005). In general, however, Zillmann’s framework of entertainment theory primarily emphasizes the emotional dimension of media entertainment and explains people’s strong and sustainable demand for entertainment by biological-hedonistic, unmeditated behavioral tendencies to enter or sustain pleasurable mood states (Zillmann, 2000).
Entertainment as Playful Communication: An Action-Theoretical Framework
An alternative universal theory conceptualizes the use and experience of media entertainment as a playful mode of human communication (Vorderer, 2001, 2003; Vorderer et al., 2004). By highlighting the commonalities between entertainment use and playful action, this framework expands the view of entertainment beyond issues of emotion and affect regulation and addresses the complex network of motivational (needs, motives, volitions affecting media selection), cognitive (expectations toward media messages, information processing, top-down knowledge activated during message reception), emotional (appraisals, arousal processes), and behavioral variables involved in enjoyable media experiences. Moreover, it highlights the overall relevance of media entertainment to people’s daily lives and well-being (Vorderer et al., 2004; see Figure 20.2). Two classes of motivations are argued to energize exposure to entertainment media (Klimmt, 2008):
· Following Katz and Foulkes (1962), one class of motivations relates to contrasting stressful or otherwise unpleasant real-life experience with pleasant, novel, unusual, or otherwise positive mediated experiences (escapism; see Henning & Vorderer, 2001). This escape type of motivation includes emotion regulation (Salovey, Hsee, & Mayer, 1993; Zillmann, 1988) as well as underlying or connected cognitive states. For instance, a real-world experience of frustration due to powerless-ness in the workplace may foster a young employee’s motivation to play a strategy video game after work, which facilitates an (enjoyable) experiential state of governing a (virtual) country with armies at his command and citizens obeying to his regime.
· Drawing from developmental psychology (e.g., Oerter, 1999; Sutton-Smith, 1997), the second class of motivations for using media entertainment involves work on developmental tasks (Havighurst, 1981) such as identity formation or gender role socialization.
The as-if quality of play—that is, play’s location between reality and fantasy— allows individuals to test actions, emotions, and identities without risking failure or social rejection (“it is only a game”; cf. Sutton-Smith, 1997). In a similar way, the fictional or quasi-real worlds of media entertainment provide information relevant to developmental tasks: Video games offer young boys (emotional) experiences of masculinity (Jansz, 2005), telenovelas teach (female) adolescents about relationship formation and maintenance (Mayer, 2003), and crime drama assures adults about the morality and functionality of society at large. Working on developmental tasks is thus a very “serious” class of motivations behind entertainment use. In this sense, the action-theoretical framework argues that the role of media entertainment in daily life and across the life span is much more central and complex than generally thought to be the case. As in human play, all processes involved in entertaining media use— motivations, cognitions, emotions—depend on developmental changes and personolog-ical variables, which render entertainment research still more multifaceted and diverse.
The “entertainment as play” paradigm is based on a broader concept of motivation than Zillmann’s framework. Following views from the philosophy and psychology of human action (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 1996; Groeben, 1986; Heckhausen, 1991; Oerter, 1999) and self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), the pursuit and use of media entertainment can be motivated by processes that range from complex, reflective decision making to quick, impulsive, situation-bound choices energized by spontaneous preferences for mood regulation. In contrast to Zillmann’s perspective, however, this framework does not suggest that selection of media entertainment that is not thoughtfully planned (such as zapping behavior when watching TV) is necessarily driven by biological forces and hedonistic mood optimization. Rather, it may also be the consequence of automaticity (Bargh, 1997). That is, thoughtful-reflective selection of entertainment fare that is frequently repeated becomes automatic over time, and the associated goals are stored as “chronic” motivations in memory such that both the entertainment-related goals (e.g., escapist relaxation after the workday) and media selection (e.g., searching for a mildly suspenseful crime drama on TV) can be processed with little deliberate thought.
The action-theoretical framework also proposes that the motivational processes involved in selecting entertainment media are highly diverse. In this sense, the framework is compatible with the uses and gratifications perspective, which is frequently applied in entertainment research (e.g., Nabi & Oliver, Chapter 15, this volume; Nabi, Stitt, Halford, & Finnerty, 2006) but adopts more variants of human action (e.g., impulsive, automatized, and reflected media choice) and is more specific in terms of the origins of motivations to use media entertainment (by rooting back to self-determination theory and evolutionary psychology; cf. Steen & Owens, 2001; Vorderer, Steen, & Chan, 2006).
Figure 20.2 A Complex, Action-Theoretical Model of Media Entertainment
Object Theories of Media Entertainment
While the conceptual frameworks introduced above represent general approaches to media entertainment, much thematic research addresses specific questions such as the user experience with certain genres or the psychological processes underlying a particular mode of media enjoyment. These more focused formulations and the empirical studies they stimulate result in theories and models that capture parts of the abstract concept of entertainment such as suspense, exhilaration, or melancholy (Bosshart & Macconi, 1998; Bryant & Miron, 2003). In this section, we introduce three prominent examples of such specialized, limited-scope entertainment theories and briefly review thematic empirical work. This section intends to illustrate different perspectives and strategies employed in theoretical-empirical entertainment research to provide a broader understanding of the field.
Suspense: The Experience of Disposition-Based Empathic Emotions
One important experiential state that most media users and communication researchers count as entertainment is suspense (Vorderer et al., 1996). Although suspense is an unpleasant affective state that largely consists of stress and fear, the enormous popularity of suspenseful media messages such as crime drama, action movies, and live sports broadcasts suggests that sus-penseful experiences contain a substantial portion of pleasure as well. Zillmann (1994, 1996a) has developed the most prominent theory of suspense in communication science. He argues that suspense is an affective response of media users to specific attributes and behaviors of characters displayed by the media message (for instance, a novel or a movie). Suspense is thus construed as a social-emotional process. Zillmann’s theory proposes that emotional reactions to media characters result from the dispositions users form toward these characters. Positive dispositions lead to empathic emotions, whereas negative dispositions foster resentful or even hostile emotions. The attitudes toward media characters thus determine the affective responses toward the characters and their fate, as narrated by the media message. Dispositions, in turn, follow from moral evaluations of the characters. For example, viewers judge a protagonist’s behavior in terms of moral integrity. “Good” characters will receive positive evaluations, but people behaving badly (e.g., criminals, arrogant characters) will garner negative evaluations. Morality thus affects dispositions, which then determine media users’ affective responses.
According to Zillmann’s theory, suspense may be construed as a specific 2 × 2 configuration of disposition-based emotional reactions: If media users fear negative story developments for characters they empathize with (that is, morally “good” characters) and hope for positive outcomes for these characters, this mixture of hope and fear marks the experience of suspense. The complementary emotional state results from concerns that disliked characters (those receiving users’ negative moral judgment) may face positive outcomes (that they “simply do not deserve”) or hopes that negative events, which seem to be morally appropriate, such as punishment, will befall them (Raney, 2005). Hopes for specific outcomes and fears that the opposite outcomes may occur are thus the affective substance of suspense (Zillmann, 1996a). Therefore, suspense results from social-emotional relevance: If media users care about what happens to characters (because they like them or because they strongly dislike them), entertainment media may trigger emotional responses (e.g., by presenting morally good characters in threatening circumstances) that are construed as suspense. Moreover, suspense is a result of uncertainty: Future-related emotions such as hope and fear can emerge only if users are unsure of a character’s fate. Directors and authors can thus trim suspense experiences by adding or removing uncertainty about what will happen to likeable and nonlikeable characters.1
Zillmann and his collaborators have reported ample empirical evidence for this theory. Their experiments demonstrate the key roles of moral judgment, dispositions toward the media characters, and outcome probabilities for suspense experiences. For example, Comisky and Bryant (1982) manipulated a video displaying a car chase sequence. In line with Zillmann’s theory, they found that the less likely a positive outcome was for the hero (as long as the outcome probability was not zero), and the more positive dispositions held toward the protagonist, the more suspense viewers experienced. Recent conceptual reviews (Raney, 2004; Raney & Bryant, 2002) and experimental evidence (Raney, 2005) suggest some additions and clarifications to Zillmann’s original model. Specifically, the process of moral judgment seems to be more complex: First, morality is relevant in viewer evaluations of both characters’ actions (e.g., the crimes of the “bad guys”) and the punishment they (may or may not) receive. Punishment of perpetrators in suspense movies needs to be morally appropriate in order to be enjoyable for viewers; excessive punishment of “bad guys” causes moral concern and undermines enjoyment. Second, individual attitudes toward justice moderate the morality-based enjoyment process (Raney, 2005).
Overall, suspense is one of the few well-explored domains of entertainment research, and communication scholars have accumulated considerable theoretical-explanatory substance. Nevertheless, various questions and challenges remain: For instance, the cognitive processes that lead to disposition formation may be more diverse than Zillmann’s focus on morality suggests (Raney, 2004). Viewer expectations (e.g., knowledge about a movie genre) may also moderate suspense processes (de Wied, Hoffman, & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 1997). Moreover, personality factors, such as sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 2006), have not been introduced systematically as an audience-based element in suspense models. Consequently, the domain of suspense holds more complexity for theoretical-empirical communication, although the basic mechanics of this entertaining experiential state are well understood.
Parasocial Relationships: Long-Term Involvement with Media Characters Shapes Enjoyment
Many genres of media entertainment center on people, including actors, musicians, talk show hosts, sports stars, and other kinds of celebrities that regularly appear in the media. Television, in particular, displays famous people with high frequency and in multiple contexts. Several communication theories address audience responses to people in (entertainment) media, including the disposition-based theories introduced by Zillmann (see above). Parasocial relationship theory takes a broader stance on media characters and pertains to issues of long-term involvement with characters that affects people’s selection of entertainment fare, their enjoyment experiences during exposure, and entertainment effects (Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm, 2006).
The fundamental assumption of paraso-cial relationship theory is that (fictional or nonfictional) characters who appear regularly in the media trigger social information processing in users (Giles, 2002; Horton & Wohl, 1956). People observe, categorize, and evaluate characters on the screen and store their impressions in memory. Perceptions of familiarity and social attitudes evolve with repeated “parasocial contact” (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005). For instance, protagonists of a crime series such as CSI: Miami can increase social involvement (parasocial relationships) throughout the course of one season if a given viewer watches most or all of the season’s shows. “Meeting” such characters on television again will then evoke experiences of familiarity, and eventually, viewers will hold mental representations of well-known and likeable characters who are potentially comparable to those of real-life friends or neighbors (Gleich, 1997).
Such relationships vary not only in intensity but also in terms of quality. Viewers’ parasocial bond to a media celebrity can be dominated by admiration (e.g., a young boy’s relationship to Arnold Schwarzenegger), strong emotional sympathy (e.g., a woman’s relationship to Diana, Princess of Wales; cf. Brown, Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003), erotic desire (e.g., an adolescent male’s relationship to Beyoncé), or envious disdain (e.g., an adult woman’s relationship to Paris Hilton). Relationship quality determines the experiences media users go through when they see a media character on-screen. Therefore, both relationship intensity and quality are crucial to understanding the implications of parasocial relationships for media entertainment.
The first set of implications from this research refers to entertainment selection. If a media user holds a strong, positive parasocial relationship with a character who is supposed to be featured in a particular entertainment offering, the user will be more likely to select that message due to the parasocial relationship (e.g., Chory-Assad & Yanen, 2005). In turn, strong-negative parasocial relationships increase the motivation to avoid the message.
Second, watching messages that feature characters one holds strong parasocial relationships with will shape the quality and intensity of enjoyment. For instance, talk shows featuring a well-liked movie star may render viewers’ experience particularly entertaining because viewing such shows evokes as-if impressions of being together with an old friend, states of deep admiration, and a sense of intimacy (Horton & Wohl, 1956). Older viewers who rediscover their favorite rock band from 30 years ago on TV may remember positive experiences of fandom and concert atmosphere, which then contribute to the entertainment experience as “emotion memories” (Oatley, 1994). In an empirical example, Hartmann, Stuke, and Daschmann (2008) found that intensity of a parasocial relationship to racing driver Michael Schumacher affected the level of suspense experienced during broadcasts of a Formula One race.
Third, parasocial relationships may also affect the postexposure effects of media entertainment. For instance, the persuasive impact of fictional entertainment messages (Appel & Richter, 2007; Green & Brock, 2000) is likely to be larger and more sustainable if the audience holds strong-positive parasocial relationships to media characters (e.g., Jackson & Darrow, 2005; Papa et al., 2000). In turn, if the medium no longer fosters the parasocial relationship, viewers may have a strong negative response. Cohen (2004; Eyal & Cohen, 2006) reports remarkably strong and aversive emotional responses to a favorite character’s disappearance from television shows (“parasocial break-ups”).
Overall, the parasocial relationships concept applies to many manifestations of media entertainment and can describe and explain numerous cognitive and emotional processes involved in selection, experience, and effects of entertainment fare. It is connected to theories on social cognition and person perception from social psychology (Giles, 2002; Klimmt et al., 2006) and thus illustrates the importance of grounding concepts for entertainment research on fundamental work from various branches of the social sciences.
Interactive Entertainment Theory: Modeling the Enjoyment of Video Games
Video games are probably the most rapidly growing and most dynamically evolving segment of the entertainment landscape (Vorderer & Bryant, 2006). Their main characteristic—interactivity—poses new challenges for entertainment theory, as the more traditional concepts developed for noninteractive (“linear”) entertainment media such as novels, movies, or sports broadcasts failed to cover the experiential implications of interactivity. Exploring the dimensions and determinants of interactive entertainment experiences is thus a growing subdomain of the field (Vorderer & Bryant, 2006). The conceptual strategy for developing theories of interactive entertainment is to adopt concepts from conventional entertainment research and critically question their viability in the domain of the video game experience (e.g., Klimmt, 2003). Additional conceptual input comes from empirical explorations, mostly survey results (e.g., Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg, & Lachlan, 2006; Wood, Griffiths, Chappell, & Davies, 2004). Experimental theory testing with video games had been difficult until recently, as the theory-based manipulation of game content required programming work that was much more complicated and knowledge intensive than, for instance, editing a movie. With better tools for game modification available, theory-driven experimental tests mark the latest step in the communication science of interactive entertainment (e.g., Hefner, Klimmt, & Vorderer, 2007; Klimmt, Hartmann, & Frey, 2007; Ravaja, Saari, Salminen, Laarni, & Kallinen, 2006).
The state of the art in interactive entertainment theory is multidimensional explications (and explanations) of video game enjoyment (e.g., Klimmt, 2003; Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, 2006; Sherry et al., 2006). One group of game enjoyment concepts focuses on interactive use and thus refers to the experiential consequences of players’ own activity. These concepts propose feelings of effectance (Klimmt & Hartmann, 2006), mastery, control (Grodal, 2000), competence, and success (Klimmt, 2003) as elements of game enjoyment. Another group of approaches highlights similarities between game enjoyment and conventional modes of entertainment. For instance, suspense seems to contribute to game enjoyment in the same way that it adds to linear entertainment experiences (e.g., Schneider, Lang, Shin, & Bradley, 2004) because suspense is the experiential manifestation of challenging situations, which occur frequently in most types of games. Another concept game researchers have imported from traditional entertainment research is identification with a character or role (Hefner et al., 2007). Game enjoyment thus stems in part from vicarious or simulated experiences of “being” an interesting person, such as a war hero (Jansz, 2005) or a race car driver.
As the number of concepts and empirical results on video game enjoyment continues to grow, a key challenge of interactive entertainment theory is to organize the different drivers of game enjoyment into structural models and to elaborate potential links among those facets of game enjoyment. Klimmt (2003) has proposed a model of game enjoyment that explicitly argues for synergistic interactions of different enjoyment components. For example, in this model, interactivity enables efficacy experiences (first element of game enjoyment) that foster self-attributions about positive game events, which leads to pride (second element of game enjoyment) as a consequence of one’s own perceived competence (“I have achieved the positive game event”; see also Klimmt & Hartmann, 2006).
With the rapid development of the video game landscape, however, new questions concerning interactive entertainment regularly emerge: Differences between playing against computer-directed versus human opponents, particular enjoyment processes in players of “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games” such as World of Warcraft (Chan & Vorderer, 2006; Yee, 2006), or the theoretical implications of new input devices such as the motor-sensor systems of Nintendo’s Wii add to the long list of issues for interactive entertainment theory to resolve. Thus, video games are an excellent example of the continuous pressure on entertainment research both to keep up with rapid changes in the objects of research and to reconnect with the various existing theories on older entertainment media or related branches of fundamental theory.
A Vision for Entertainment Research
The previous two sections have illustrated that the field of media entertainment is highly dynamic and rich in theories. It is an especially attractive field for young researchers, given its high relevance for people’s everyday lives, the numerous subdomains of inquiry, and the large number of unexplored research issues. In regard to the philosophy of science and to interdisciplinary collaboration, entertainment research is an interesting field of communication because it relates to virtually all disciplines of the social sciences and even beyond: Psychological perspectives are key to explaining individual entertainment experiences. They drive most of the empirical entertainment research, as the individual processes of selection, experience, and effects mark the center of the field (Bryant & Vorderer, 2006; Shrum, 2004). Sociology and cultural studies contribute to our understanding of the form and content as well as the habitualized and ritualized use of media entertainment at the level of groups and societies (e.g., Schulze, 1992), and indicate the strong dependence of psychological processes of entertainment on culture and socialization: What is enjoyable in Western societies is not necessarily fun in Asian or Middle Eastern societies (e.g., Acland, 2003). On the other hand, physiology and neuroscience allow the sensory and biological underpinnings of individual entertainment experiences to be understood (e.g., Ravaja et al., 2006).
Thus, the future of entertainment research requires a great deal of work. Theory development and empirical entertainment studies need to continue in light of almost infinite numbers of entertainment media, genres, and formats. In addition to this operative continuation of today’s work, the even more challenging issues for the future are (a) the systematic cross-cultural foundation of entertainment research and (b) the nano-micro-meso-macro integration of conceptual elements that affect the selection, experience, and effects of media entertainment.
Concerning the cross-cultural dimension of entertainment research, communication science needs to acknowledge that entertainment media have evolved as a significant export, and today’s entertainment economy is a truly global business (Havens, 2003; Wolf, 1999). For instance, the Harry Potter books and movies attract audiences worldwide, whereas many other entertainment media only succeed at national levels: For example, a special kind of strategy video game (“build-up games,” which require much player effort and time to establish economic structures before actual war strategies become accessible) are extremely popular in Germany but are largely unsuccessful in American markets. For entertainment research, these cultural and cross-cultural issues imply new challenges to describing and explaining how media enjoyment “works.”
Liebes and Katz (1986) have published a highly informative study on culturally different audiences’ construal of the same entertainment format (Dallas). Much more of this kind of work lies ahead for future entertainment research in order for the research enterprise to stay abreast of the dynamic development of entertainment media and their reception worldwide (Trepte, 2007; Valkenburg & Janssen, 1999). These tasks can be accomplished with effective international networking among entertainment research laboratories, which is as necessary as defining common conceptual grounds of media enjoyment that can assist in the development of transnational methodological-procedural standards (e.g., how to operationalize specific manifestations of enjoy ment cross-culturally).
While the cross-cultural orientation calls for broader perspectives on media entertainment, the other major challenge ahead arises from the interdisciplinary modeling of specific enjoyment experiences across the different levels of human functioning. Perspective integration is especially appropriate for complex modes of enjoyment, such as the pleasant state of exhilaration in consumers of an irony-based comedy program like The Simpsons (Gray, 2007). The psychological approach to this kind of media enjoyment will include both a strong cognitive (knowledge retrieval, elaboration, and comprehension) and a strong affective (increased arousal, pleasant emotion of joy) dimension. Their complete modeling needs to incorporate neuroscientific construals as well, for example, the patterns of brain activation for elaborative memory processes and pleasant affective states (e.g., Damasio, 2004). Physiological approaches equally contribute to full descriptions of the enjoyment experience. Organismic responses to surprise, for instance, are well documented in physiological research (Ravaja et al., 2006) and may turn out to be an important building block for a multilevel construal of the Simpsons experience because the format frequently uses surprises to foster (irony-based) exhilaration. The scientific disciplines concerned with human biological functioning should thus play a crucial role in future entertainment research to understand the “nano” level of enjoyment experiences on which conscious-individual manifestations of entertainment are grounded.
The “micro” level, which is the classic research from psychology and communication, will still play the lead role in future entertainment research, as it investigates those processes (e.g., knowledge, person perception, attribution, social comparison, recognition of the mediation of experience, suspension of disbelief) that determine the experiential quality of entertainment accessible to the individual media user (Bryant & Vorderer, 2006; Zillmann & Vorderer, 2000). To contribute effectively to multilevel models of enjoyment experiences, the traditional lines of entertainment research will need to further exploit the rich reservoirs of theory of the social sciences (e.g., much work in social psychology is important to analyze audience responses to people-centered entertainment messages; see the sections on suspense and on parasocial relationships above).
Entertainment research so far has neglected the importance of the social situations that surround media consumption and group processes involved in media enjoyment. Television consumption often occurs while other family members are present (Bryant & Bryant, 2001). The fun of horror movies in the cinema “works” much better if the viewer is part of a group (Tamborini, 2003). Many video game players prefer online games that connect them to a few or (extremely) many other people (Pena & Hancock, 2006). Research on media entertainment should integrate input from social psychology and sociology to better understand the experiential implications that follow from group situations of media consumption and from the entertainment’s relevance in ongoing social interaction. Thus, theorizing the “meso” level of entertainment experiences—that is, social situations and group processes—is also an important task ahead for multilevel models of media entertainment in communication science.
Finally, future entertainment research must cap the combined contributions of nano-, micro-, and meso-aspects with a macro-perspective on popular culture and history, as well as cultural (see above) and life span dimensions (see McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, Chapter 11, this volume). Socialization through media in Western societies is a complex process with remarkable impact on individual communication patterns and entertainment experiences. Consider, for example, the collective importance of Disney’s main characters and the way they affected audience preferences and expectations toward media entertainment (Watts, 2001). Germany’s television system, which had been limited to very few channels until the mid-1980s, has shaped national audience habits and entertainment preferences for today’s older generations in very specific ways. Such system-level factors are frequently set as constant in individual-based entertainment research, but a full-spectrum account of entertainment experiences should consider the variability and influence of relevant macro-aspects as well.
The core of the challenge for future entertainment described here is to model synergistic interactions of determinants and dimensions of media entertainment across levels of analysis. While it is intuitively clear that (complex) modes of media entertainment such as the Simpsons experience relate to all levels mentioned, from neurological functioning to cultural and societal framing, it is most important to theorize how the different components relate to each other and how specific interactions among the components contribute to variance in media enjoyment. The need for nano-micro-meso-macro integration therefore relates to both theory connectivity and methodological compatibility.
Communication science is definitely the discipline that is best suited to master the enormous challenges outlined here because (a) communication research on media entertainment and beyond already addresses several levels mentioned above (e.g., research in information systems, mass communication, and popular communication, to name some thematically relevant divisions of the International Communication Association), and (b) the discipline has a strong and successful tradition of adopting and translating concepts and methods from other (social) sciences (Bryant & Miron, 2004). Therefore, we conclude the present chapter on a very optimistic note: Entertainment research will be central in the communication science of the future because it is already rich in theories and still offers numerous opportunities for theoretical-empirical expansion. It also offers great chances to improve the connections among the various academic traditions within the communication discipline (Craig, 1999). From an applied perspective, entertainment research is a significant part of communication’s contribution to address societal problems. Some of these problems stem from the popularity of media entertainment (e.g., the effects of violent entertainment media; see Nabi & Oliver, Chapter 15, this volume), while society may resolve other problems by using media entertainment (e.g., “entertainment education”; cf. Singhal, Cody, Rogers, & Sabido, 2004). Thus, entertainment research deserves its place among the established fields of communication science, and we argue that entertainment research will become one of the discipline’s major realms in the future.
1. Interestingly, users who already know about the outcome of an entertaining media message (e.g., because they have been exposed to it before) are capable of suppressing their knowledge to actively keep up a subjective uncertainty about the outcome and thus to maintain a pleasant level of suspense (suspension of disbelief; cf. Böcking, 2008; Brewer, 1996).
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