Special Session Summary Framing Consumption As Play


Kent Grayson and John Deighton (1995) ,"Special Session Summary Framing Consumption As Play", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 241-242.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 241-242



Kent Grayson, London Business School

John Deighton, Harvard Business School

Despite the 1982 call for attention to play (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) and one exploratory study (Holbrook, Chestnut, Oliva and Greenleaf 1984), consumer research has given little theoretical weight or empirical attention to play. This session brought together seven people whose research illuminates that an understanding of play and games is indispensable to understanding much of consumers' behavior. It was hoped that, by describing current work in play and games, the session could reflect the continued promise of this topic.


Kent Grayson and John Deighton

Playing can be viewed as an agreement (or a social consensus) among two or more individuals to follow a unique set of rules; rules that the players consider to be different from those which govern their everyday lives. An important additional consideration for play is whether the agreements that make up the social consensus are (a) shared by the players alone or (b) shared also by the wider group or society in which the playing takes place (Deighton and Grayson, forthcoming). These basic distinctions are outlined in the table below:


When the consensus is narrow (e.g., two people playing tennis "just for fun"), the players have significant latitude to alter the standard rules and to make up new ones. In this case, greater benefits are gleaned when the players are creative enough to devise new rules, and flexible enough to follow each other's lead in this regard. Alternatively, when two individuals are participating in a broader consensus (i.e., playing tennis in a professional match), the rules are set by precedent and are not under the control of the players. Thus, players increase their ability to glean benefits from the game by knowing the rules and by being able to work strategically within these rules.

Marketing has in the past been more game-like, with its focus on mass markets and on the building of broad social consensuses. However, as marketing becomes more targeted and interactive, both marketers and consumers will find themselves in more playful consumption situations, and will require new skills to glean benefits from it.


Eric Arnould and Linda Price

Building from data collected from consumers and service providers during river rafting expeditions (see Arnould and Price 1993), this presentation presented a post-modern conception of play, which emphasizes the qualities of freedom, liberation, and protest against reason. The presentation also described consumers' post-modern perceptions of nature and how these two post-modern perspectives articulate with one another.

A key quality of post-modern play is that it pushes the boundaries between play and not-play. For example, post-modern play is set aside from life, yet it tells about life. Informants frequently noted that river rafting offered an escape from the everyday, while also reporting that their river rafting experiences taught them lessons that they carried into their everyday lives.

River rafting also pushes the boundaries between play and not-play by combining the sacred, the secular and the existential in a single activity. Its sacredness is reflected in the observation that consumers are often transformed by a river rafting experience, just as they are by rituals. Yet, participants often viewed their experience as hard work, which is inherently secular. And, river rafting is existential because of the real life-and-death dangers often associated with the activity.

This research also highlighted a post-modern conception of nature. Nature is viewed as an uncertain force that is divorced from the commercial relationships that govern the rest of life. It is thus seen as a locus for both authentication and an alternative way of life. Because nature governs rafting rules (and not the other way around), participants report primal experiences that do not follow the logic of reason. Thus, play in nature (i.e., post-modern play) is protected from rationalization.



Douglas Holt

Drawing from an observational case study of spectators of professional baseball, this presentation cast play as one of the four key analytical categories used by Holt (forthcoming) to typologize consumer actions. Specifically, play references the interpersonal aspects of autotelic consumer actions. When consumers play, they use their engagement with the consumption object as a resource that they draw on to interact with other consumers. The interpersonal dimension distinguishes playing from other related concepts of autotelic consumption such as experiential consumption, flow, aesthetic experience, and sacred experience.

Different types of play can be delineated by looking at the differences in the implicit rules structuring the play. For example, baseball spectators engage in "arguing" (rule: taking contrary positions), "socializing" (rule: entertaining others, being witty), and "role playing" (rule: mimicking players, coaches and announcers). Overall, it was argued that playing is a central dimension of action in all consumption categories, not just those that are typically associated with play and games.


Robert M. Schindler

This presentation was a preliminary report of a series of depth interviews with deal-prone consumers. Two types of games were observed. The first is a solitary game, played against an impersonal seller. In "Wait," the consumer identifies a desired item, and then waits for the price to decrease substantially, hoping that this will occur before the item becomes unavailable. In "Radar," the player systematically scans for bargains by repeatedly carrying out a predetermined sequence of shopping activities. In "Stock Up," the player attempts to purchase enough of a discounted item so that repurchase is not necessary until the next time the item is discounted.

The second type of game is a social game, played against (and sometimes also in cooperation with) other consumers. In "Guess What I Paid For This," the consumer shows a second player a recent purchase and asks the second player to indicate what one would expect to pay for the item. In "Beat the Clock," the player takes sometimes extreme measures to purchase discounted merchandise before it can be purchased by other consumers. In "Santa Claus," the player purchases numerous items on deal for the purpose of giving them away, expecting to stimulate conversation about the source of this generosity.

It was observed that the informants usually believed that they would easily win most bargain-related games. However, it sometimes turned out that doing so was more difficult than the players had anticipated. On the other hand, it was also observed that bargain-related games enriched consumers' lives in many ways, including enjoying the camaraderie of bargain hunting with friends and experiencing the pleasures of obtaining a discount throughout consumption of the discounted product.


Morris Holbrook

According to a typology offered by Holbrook (1994), play is self-oriented, active behavior that is intrinsically motivated (see table below). Although this session usefully addressed many issues related to play and consumption, each of the presentations drifted away from describing activities in the "play" cell below, and toward the discussion of activities that might better fit in other cells.


First, the rule orientation of Deighton and Grayson is too broad for a clear-cut definition of play, since their perspective might include rule-based consumption experiences other than games (e.g., starting one's car), as well as games that are not really playful (e.g., marketing warfare). Secondly, Arnould and Price include in their conception of play several other-oriented activities, which moves their focus from play into ethics and spirituality. Next, because there is a difference between actually playing baseball and reactively watching baseball, Holt's conception includes various reactive aspects of consumption, which places his phenomena of interest at least partially in the esthetics area. Lastly, the bargain hunters described by Schindler seek various extrinsic benefits, including the self-oriented benefit of efficiency and the other-oriented benefits of success and esteem.

In sum, the presentations were valuable in highlighting the importance of play: they raised key issues related to the conceptualization of play, and suggested the complexity of the consumption experience. However, there are still inadequate answers regarding the nature of play per se, and regarding the types of play that might exist within the overall phenomenon of playful consumption.


Arnould, Eric J. and Linda L. Price (1993), "River Magic: Extraordinary Experience and the Extended Service Encounter," Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (1), 24-45.

Deighton, John and Kent Grayson (forthcoming), "Marketing and Seduction: Managing Exchange Relationships by the Construction of Social Consensus," Journal of Consumer Research.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1994), "The Nature of Customer Value: An Axiology of Services in the Consumption Experience", in Roland Rust and Richard Oliver (eds.), Service Quality: New Directions in Theory and Practice, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Holbrook, Morris B., Robert B. Chestnut, Terence A. Oliva and Eric A. Greenleaf (1984), "Play as a Consumption Experience: The Roles of Emotions, Performance, and Personality in the Enjoyment of Games," Journal of Consumer Research, 11 (2), 728-739.

Holbrook, Morris B. and Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1982), "The Experiential Aspects of Consumption: Fantasies, Feelings and Fun," Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (2), 132-140.

Holt, Douglas (forthcoming), "How Consumers Consume: A Typology of Consumption Practices," Journal of Consumer Research.



Kent Grayson, London Business School
John Deighton, Harvard Business School


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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