Games Consumers Play: The Construction, Maintenance, and Defense of Elective Identity Through Play
Hildebrand, John N.
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Play is a means to express and explore an individual’s or a community’s identity. The individual uses play to communicate meaning about who they are. People perform identity when they meet role expectations (Goffman, 1959). Play involves accepting or rejecting the role expectations of the situation in which we find ourselves (Grayson, 1999). We don’t have to play when there are role expectations, but we can if we so choose. All play has meaning (Huizinga, 1956). It points to and signifies other things. It reflects and rewards the values of the players’ community. If shopping is more than buying things but the buying of identity (Clammer, 1992; Johnstone and Conroy, 2005), then play is the demonstration and the performance of this purchased (and elective) identity. The acquired ‘things’ become the props we use to make identity performances real, visible, and readable by others. This research will look at the effort consumers go through to construct, maintain, and defend elective identities within the environments within which they are enacted—what I will refer to throughout this document as ‘playscapes’. I ask the questions, 1. “Why take the effort to construct, maintain, and defend an elective identity within a playscape? (What are the payoffs?). 2. “What role does the environment play in affecting elective identity consumption processes?” and 3. “[How] do players differentiate between other players and spectators within a playscape?” ix What I show through this research is how the explicit recognition of play in the elective identity process enables us to better understand how consumers approach consumption. Once we are freed from the obligations of necessity—once we are free to play—we can approach our consumption differently. Once we begin to play, we don’t all play the same way. Identities are not static; they are ongoing projects. They are a process. We can work at these projects or we can play at these projects. We can make these projects a game and, in doing so, they take on the characteristics and components of any other game. They have a playscape—boundaries within which they are played. They have rules determining what you can and cannot do. They have pieces, props, and other paraphernalia. They involve the suspension of the ‘real world’ for the acceptance of an imaginary world that—while it is active—takes precedence over the outside world. Finally, games have other players. One of the things this research makes apparent is that other players, in the form of spectators, are more important to play and games—especially elective identity games—than we may at first realize. In consumer behavior and consumer culture theory we tend to treat the observer as a given; as something that is fixed. As a result we tend to see elective identity performances as one-sided communication—as presentations made to relevant audiences. What, in fact, my research shows is that elective identity performances are more like multi-sided games with both moves and countermoves. Elective identity becomes a form of negotiation between the performer and an active audience who are also involved in the performance—or, in keeping with this dissertation, a negotiation between players playing the same or similar games. As x an open game—one whose goal is to keep playing and not end the game—elective identity games involve the creation, maintenance, and defense of different elective identities within a playscape. Successful play means the creating, maintaining, and defending playscape-compatible elective identities. It is through the ongoing play within these playscapes that boundaries are tested and performances assessed. It is an iterative process, a conversation, between presenter and observer in which a consumer can choose to play either role. If we study just one side of this equation we cannot get a proper understanding of the role played by each—like hearing only one side of a phone conversation. We can try to piece some of it together, but we can be more confident in what we hear and understand if we have both sides of the conversation.