An interesting application of uses and gratifications perspectives, although developed independently, is William Stephenson’s play theory. Stephenson, a British psychologist who did much of his research while serving as a distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, has proposed and rigorously and empirically supported a mass communication theory based around concepts of pain and pleasure, work and play
Like the researchers quoted in the precedence discussion on USEll and gratifications, Stephenson maintains that audiences, whenever they are given the chance, will manipulate their media to serve their own needs. However, he goes one step further in pointing out that when pursuing media in their daily lives, audiences are engaged in pleasurable, ritualistic, and self-serving activities that are essentially play-like in nature. Enjoyment and contentment are inherent in activities that allow freedom of choice rather than social control. According to play theory and the psychological principles on which it is based, individuality is preferable to being forced to work and to conform to someone else’s expectations
Play theory research has explained some of the apparently strange things audiences do with media. We tend to read newspapers primarily for pleasure rather than strictly for information; we tend to read things we already know about; we read our magazines and newspapers in the same systematic and ritualistic pattern, day after day, week after week, because of the pleasure of the ritual; we tend to read the advice columns because they make us feel more confident about ourselves; we tend to enjoy many commercials and advertisements because we can put ourselves into the picture, and we know we have the freedom to decide whether or not to purchase the products being advertised; we organize our evenings and weekends around prime-time programmers and movies that offer us vicarious and psychologically painless adventures, and so forth
Not all communication is characterized by play and pleasure. Purposeful activities expected to elicit a specific reaction from us, according to Stephenson, have elements of work, pain, and social control. The distinction between play and pain rests not in the communication per se, nor in the motivations of the sources and gatekeepers, but rather in the minds and behaviors of the audiences. For instance:
Although reading a textbook might be some student’s idea’ of pleasure– there are, of course, those for whom the acquisition of academic knowledge is a sort of “game” others the experience .is psychologically painful. This occurs because of the relationship between the medium and the audience, When the readings are assigned and students held accountable (by,someone else’s standards) for mastering the content, much of the pleasure been removed. To the students experiencing communication pain, textbooks seem to be part of an academic system which the students have not created; it looks like a system replete with obstacles and rules imposed by bureaucracies. When looked at in this light, it is a prime example of social control.
Viewing news documentaries and educational programmers merely because society has convinced us that we have an obligation to understand our environment is not a pleasurable experience freely entered into by the majority of us. For others who get turned on by knowledge for its own sake, or who view such programmers while motivated in part by the desire to impress others with their knowledge, such viewing is a form of psychological play.
Viewing commercials or.reading persuasive messages that play on our insecurities and senses of obligation, and which limit our alternatives (ItIf you don’t use this product or vote for this candidate, you’ll be a social outcast and responsible for the downfall of the republic. It) can be painful to those who take them seriously. On the other hand, for those who fancy themselves as . free thinkers, there is pleasure in ignoring the burdensome messages.
As these examples indicate, purposeful activities expected to elicit a specific reaction from us have elements of pain, work, and social control. In organized society, of course, such activities are essential for there to be any consensus or public opinion. Education and civics depend in part upon such activities. In totalitarian societies-which might include universities, businesses, and even homes where choices are limited to either absorbing information or failing to ineet institutionalized norms– communication is frequently characterized by pain and social control. Moralistic propaganda abounds in such conditions. However, even in the most totalitarian states, operating under the most rigid controls, leaders recognize the value of diversion and playful elements in their media. Mao Tsetung’s wired villages, in which every Chinese citizen was continually reachable by radio tuned in to one central channel, heard much music as political polemic. If thi s were not the case, citizens would have sought other diversions from the overwhelming sense of responsibility imposed by the politicized media
Stephenson justifies diversions in democratic states for the same s, Unless we have media content centered around superficiality such as fads, fancies, manners, tastes, and other escapes, we might become overly anxious and burdened. The research methodology employed by play theorists studies both the anxiety-producing conditions and those that diminish them, toward what Stephenson claimed to be the two basic purposes of mass communication: to suggest how best to maximize the communication pleasure in the world, and to show how far autonomy for the individual can be achieved in spite of the weight of social controls against him or her.
Play theory has been widely applied.to research in advertising and political persuasion, as well as to the study of improving physical design of print media. Although the theory is demonstrable through the sophisticated research system (called “Q methodology”) designed by Stephenson, there are m”ny who take issue with the basic assumptions of the entire school of thought. Generally, Stephenson is seen as an apologist for the media status quo. His theory offends many who are calling for reform in the media and who wish to see the media raising instead of merely catering to popular tastes. Stephenson’s response is that researchers and theorists have for too long been passing moralistic judgments on the media when, instead, what is required is a fresh glance at media audiences who are engaged in pleasurable self-interest. Because most consumption of mass communication is done voluntarily, Stephenson wonders why the media shouldn’t appeal to the basic psychological orientations of audiences. Otherwise, the media and audiences are wasting a lot of each other’s time and energy.