Individuals' experiences and hedonic motivations have been frequently explored in consumption contexts. In a seminal article published almost 30 years ago, Hirschman and Holbrook relate playful consumption to other intrinsically motivated activities (e.g. leisure, creativity, hobbies) and find that satisfaction, enjoyment, fun, and other internal, affective and hedonic elements (in addition to personality traits and player performance) motivate consumers to play. Since then, many authors have explored different aspects of play in its relationship with consumer consumer behaviour and consumer culture.
I will offer short reviews of some of these articles, hoping this can be useful for those interested in similar topics. At the end, some extra references!
1. Mathwick, C. and Rigdon, E. (2004). Play, Flow, and the Online Search Experience. Journal of Consumer Research, 31 (2), 324-332.
Emphasizing the motivation, cognitive aspects, and psychological characteristics of playful activities, Mathwick and Rigdon introduce the notion of “perceived play” while investigating the antecedents and experiential outcomes of flow (see Csikszentmihalyi work for more on flow). They define perceived play as a compound of two dimensions: intrinsic enjoyment and escapism (a state of full engagement, or psychological immersion). Perceived play is, then, conceptually similar to “the affect- and arousal-based indicators typically associated with the flow state”. The authors conclude that play (in the adjective form of “perceived play”) serves as a link between the experience of flow and the consumer attitude formation.
2. Unger, L. S., and Kernan, J. B. (1983). On the meaning of leisure: an investigation of some determinants of the subjective experience. Journal of Consumer Research, 9: 381-392.
A similar definition is the conceptualization of leisure developed by Unger and Kernan. These authors understand play and leisure as intertwined concepts, particularly because both are frequently defined in more subjective terms. In a review of the literature on leisure studies, they identify six determinants of subjective leisure, all of which have also been used to define play: (1) intrinsic satisfaction, (2) perceived freedom, (3) involvement, (4) arousal, (5) mastery, and (6) spontaneity. The authors investigated all six variables across a variety of contexts using survey data and found three of them to be the basic determinants of subjective leisure experiences: intrinsic satisfaction, perceived freedom, and involvement. The other three variables are found to be more activity-specific.
They also point to intrinsic satisfaction as “the quintessence of leisure”, observing that leisure activities are intrinsically motivated and seen as an end in itself. Perceived freedom, as the authors properly acknowledge, has also been proposed and empirically proved by several researchers as the single precondition of subjective leisure.
3. Holbrook, M. B., Chestnut, R. W., Oliva, T. A. and Greenleaf, E.A. (1984). Play as Consumption Experience: The Roles of Emotions, Performance, and Personality in the Enjoyment of Games. Journal of Consumer Research, 11 (September), 728-739.
Subjective perspectives on play also have appeared in the marketing literature as a dimension of experiential value. Holbrook and his colleagues have produced a series of articles investigating play, enjoyment, and hedonic experiences. Holbrook also offers a typology of consumer value in which play is seen as self-oriented, meeaning “actively sought and enjoyed for its own sake” behaviour that is intrinsically motivated and typically involves having “fun” (the opposite of boredom?).
4. Grayson, K. (1999), The Dangers and Opportunities of Playful Consumption in Consumer Value: A Framework for Analysis and Research, ed. Morris B. Holbrook, London: Routledge.
Looking at the relevance of the concept of play to marketers and consumers, Grayson affirms that definitions of play centered on subjective dimensions lead to the convenient conclusion that virtually all products and services can be sold and consumed as play, depending only on the consumer approach to them. The confinement of play in a subjective realm of “self-oriented activities” or “states of mind” is problematic in that it does not clearly trace the boundaries between the concept of play and similar others (e.g. flow, leisure, aesthetic consumption) and situates it almost exclusively on the mental engagement of the player.
5. Holt, D. B. (1995). How Consumers Consume: A Typology of Consumption Practices. Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 1-16.
A less subjective conceptualization of play appeared in Holt’s taxonomy of “how consumers consume”. Observing spectators at baseball games, Holt distinguishes play from other related concepts (such as experiential consumption) by adding an interpersonal dimension to it. From his perspective, play occurs when consumers use objects to socialize or commune with other individuals having no other end beyond the interaction itself. However, reactively watching a sport is different from actually playing a sport. The various reactive aspects of consumption included in Holt’s typology blur the phenomena he classifies as play with aesthetic consumption experiences. While emphasizing the relevance of the consumption object to playful consumption, Holt also downplays the relevance of the object, which is considered a mere (and substitutable) resource used by consumers who engage in autotelic interactions. In this sense, any object (e.g. the weather), not only a consumption object, could serve as basis for a playful relationship between consumers.
6. Deighton, J. and Grayson, K. (1995). Marketing and Seduction: Building Exchange Relationships by Managing Social Consensus. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, (March), 518-526.
Departing from Holt’s typology, Deighton and Grayson rethink the interpersonal aspects involved in the definition of play while maintaining the subjective dimensions of the concept and analyzing it as a prerequisite to relationship building. In their perspective, playing represents “an agreement (or social consensus) among two or more individuals to follow a unique set of rules; rules that players consider to be different than those which govern their everyday lives.”
The authors look at the formation of exchange relationships between marketers and consumers. The authors contrast broader forms of social consensus (e.g. socialization) with the narrow and mainly inconsequential consensus which constitutes play. Another example of activity sustained by narrow social consensus is the con-game, in which, contrary to play, the gains achieved by some participants are lost with the discontinuity of the consensus and the participant who faces loss (in their analysis, the consumer) is said to have been “conned or defrauded.” Ultimately, the distinction between con-games and play proposed by Deighton and Greyson relies on evaluations of the intentions of marketers and the legitimacy of their actions.
Play involves following or deviating from the norms and expectations implied in a situation. It is important to note, however, that given the essential role of intrinsic motivation and self-orientation in determining play, it is possible that not all instances of following or deviating from social expectations will result in play.
7. Grayson, K. (1999), The Dangers and Opportunities of Playful Consumption in Consumer Value: A Framework for Analysis and Research, ed. Morris B. Holbrook, London: Routledge.
Looking at the rule-following characteristics of different activities, Grayson reviews Caillois’s (check last post’s reference list) typology of play and adapts it to the understanding of playful consumption. Callois defines play as essentially free (“voluntary, a source of joy and enjoyment”), separate (“carefully isolated from the rest of life”), uncertain (“the course of which cannot be determined”), and unproductive (“it creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art”), yet regulated (“by precise, arbitrary, unexceptionable rules that must be accepted as such”) or make-believe. His typology categorizes playful activities in four groups, depending on whether competition (agôn), chance (alea), simulation (mimicry) or vertigo (ilinx) is the dominant characteristic. The four types are arranged into separate quadrants each containing games of the same type. Within a quadrant, however, the activities can be organized in a continuum: at one extreme is ludus, representing calculation, and subordination to rules; at the other is paidia, which is active, exuberant, spontaneous, rule-breaking.
Grayson further relates the types of play discussed by Caillois to a catalogue of consumer activities to determine seven ways in which consumers play with (or along) marketers. Four of these are subtypes of ludus: (1) imitation, (2) initiation, (3) participation, and (4) competition. The remainder three are types of paidia: (5) deception, (6) subversion, and (7) innovation. Relating these playful activities to role-theory, Grayson analyzes the dangers and possibilities of paidic and ludic playful activities in the context of marketing and consumers relationships. He concludes in observing that play can be “harmlessly pleasant or threateningly subversive”, depending mostly on whether consumers follow or break the rules expected (proposed?) by the marketer. It is important to observe, however, that sometimes marketers and consumers do not agree on whether an activity is rule-breaking or rule-following.
8. Kozinets, R.V., Sherry Jr., J. F., Storm, D., Duhachek, A., Nuttavuthisit, K. and DeBerry-Spence, B. (2004). Ludic Agency and Retail Spectacle. Journal of Consumer Research, 31 (December), 658-672.
Building on the theorization of play and consumption proposed by Grayson and relating it to theories of consumer agency, Kozinets and his colleagues investigate the roles of consumers and marketers in creating and subverting rules (for playing) in spectacular environments. Adopting a celebratory view of agency, in which producers and consumers negotiate meanings and practices equally serving the interests of both parts, the researchers found a more nuanced conception of play than the opposition paidia-ludus. The authors illustrate the complex allocation of agency between marketers and consumers by observing that, in the spectacular environment investigated, “play involves ceding great latitude of freedom to consumers, who use their freedom to work within the rules of play, to break other rules, and to create new rules”. These observations indicate that more than following or breaking rules put forward by marketers (as suggested by Grayson), consumers can also create new rules – where there is space for rule creation and rupture of the initial consensus between marketers and consumers, there is also the possibility that the marketer is tricked – facing losses in the relationship which is no longer play, but a con-game.
Kozinets and his colleagues acknowledge that in corporate, commercialized contexts such as the spectacular themed environment of ESPN Zone Chicago, consumer creative and subversive actions are promptly co-opted and appropriated by the marketer as only another feature of the spectacle intended for commercialization. In this sense, the consumer may play the “trickster”, but the marketer is never deceived. On the one hand, while the “ontological setting apart in real space” of spectacular environments represents a liminoid zone in which consumers can manifest their playfulness, it also allows the marketer to control and re-appropriate whatever subversion might happen within the boundaries of the enticing spectacular environment. The question remains of whether outside spectacular environments it is possible to observe similar dynamics of agency between consumers and marketers in determining rules of play.
9. Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., and Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high-risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, (March), 518-526.
In their ethnography of a sky-diving community Celsi, Rose, and Leigh investigate the experiences of consumers seeking high-risk leisure activities. While exploring the context of high-risk experiences, the authors observed that individuals have been increasingly convinced that their jobs should provide them with a strong sense of self, autonomy, and self-efficacy. In the current state of social specialization of the workplace, however, most people find themselves distanced from the outcomes of their labour. This paradox, according to Celsi, Rose, and Leigh the authors, provides “tension to be released, and the means, such as discretionary time and income, to seek denouement through play.” Despite focusing exclusively on high risk leisure as a form of releasing the tensions originated in the workplace, the authors suggest that feelings of catharsis, identity generation, mastery, flow and community may also be obtained from less risky activities such as running or biking.
10. Belk, R.W. and Costa, J. (1998). The Mountain Myth: A Contemporary Consuming Fantasy. Journal of Consumer Research, 25 (December), 218-40.
Belk and Costa identified several positive outcomes related to what can be considered an extreme, or serious form of play. In their ethnographic study, the authors describe the re-enactments of the Mountain Men rendezvous as a transient consumption community characterized by a fantastical time and space. They identified elements of primitivism, mystification, and nostalgia for simpler times and values in the participants’ discourses, which motivate their active engagement in the creation of a consumption enclave in remote natural settings. The intense involvement of participants in the Mountain Men community and the effort and resources they invest in producing and acquiring the objects and abilities necessary to this recreational activity suggest that the re-enactments are a form of serious leisure (more on this in the next post). The modern mountain men studied by Belk and Costa repudiate work and find in the mountain men fantasy the necessary elements (including work and play) for a meaningful life. Belk and Costa (1998) also pay close attention to the playful elements of the rendezvous. The authors find on the mountain men community all elements of play as defined by Huizinga, including freedom of choice, rules and order, some level of competition, a delimited place and time, and the awareness of a make-pretend. In relating play to serious leisure and a world of fantasy, Belk and Costa extend the realm of play to cover not only fun and enjoyment, but a site for the pursuit of meaning, the development of identities, and the expansion of possibilities for self-transformation. The authors suggest that the same “sacred and fantastic time and place, providing escape, renewal, play, and a sense of community for its participants” created in the modern mountain men rendezvous can be found in other consumption enclaves or alternative realities.
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3. Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., and Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high-risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, (March), 518-526.
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