BRETT A. S. MARTIN*
This article explores the process by which consumers evoke and thematize the fantastic imaginary when playing a fantasy-based trading card game. Interviews with 15 informants, all players of Magic: The Gathering, serve as data. The result is a new framework that reveals how the fantastic imaginary is evoked and thematized.
A typology of thematizing strategies employed by consumers is also presented. Implications are discussed in relation to consumer research,imagination theory, literary theory of the evoked fantastic imaginary, and the imaginary in play. Scholars dating back to antiquity have sought to understand how people use their imaginations to manifest the imaginary (Iser 1993; Kearney 1988). Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) pioneered consumer research addressing the imaginary by emphasizing the value of recognizing consumer fantasies and mental imagery.
Other scholars have also noted the importance of the imaginary. For instance, Sherry (1990) asserted that the use of the imagination is an essential activity of consumption. Similarly, Scott (1994, p. 475) lamented that as consumer researchers “we have closed off what is clearly an important aspect of human mental experience: the work of the imagination.” Recently however, there is an increasing recognition among consumer researchers that the imaginary, or its frequent synonym, the imagination, plays an important role in the consumption experience (e.g., Kozinets, Sherry, Storm et al. 2002; Pen˜aloza 2001; Sherry and Schouten 2002).
This research suggests that fantasy-oriented imagery and themed retail environments such as ESPN Zone engage the imagination and that our understanding of these issues will become even more vital as consumers increasingly seek experiential consumption. Indeed this importance is perhaps nowhere more evident than when these scholars describe marketers as “imagineers” (e.g., Kozinets, Sherry, DeBerry-Spence et al. 2002; Sherry et al. 2001). Yet despite this growing literature, little is known about the process and underlying mechanisms of how consumers *Brett A. S. Martin is associate professor of marketing at the University of Auckland Business School, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand (email@example.com). The author thanks Robert Kozinets, Peter Danaher, Rod Brodie, Rev. Helen Milne, Christina Lee, Michael J. Sherrard, Ben Fernandez, Lynne Mitchell, Guy Mullarkey, and Mary-Ann Twist. Special thanks to Dawn Iacobucci, David Mick, the associate editor, and the JCR reviewers for their insightful, constructive, and comprehensive feedback, which greatly shaped this article.
The author also thanks transcribers David Redmore and Gina Clark, and especially the TCG players, for sharing their stories. actually manifest the imaginary during consumption. Even Pen˜aloza (2001), in an interesting study of cultural production at a cattle trade show and rodeo, highlights how consumers use the imaginary to create meanings but does not delve into the mechanisms by which consumers evoke and shape the imaginary, other than to say that the process involves “ethereal imaginings” (p. 390).
However, understanding this process would inform our understanding of experiential consumption contexts where the imaginary is evoked. The purpose of this research is to describe the dynamics of how consumers generate the fantastic imaginary during consumption. In this study, drawing upon data from a series of interviews, I present a new conceptual model of the imaginary within the context of play for the trading card game (TCG) Magic: The Gathering (hereafter Magic).1 This model reveals the process by which consumers evoke and thematize the fantastic imaginary during pretence play. I use the term “evoking” to refer to the act of the players referring to the imaginary.
The term “thematizing” refers to how the evoked imaginary is given form as mental imagery (cf. Iser 1993) that involves quasi-pictorial representations (Dahl, Chattopadhyay, and Gorn 1999). I define “pretence play” as a modality of play that evokes the imaginary (Goldman 1998). Finally, I use the term “fantastic imaginary” to refer to the imaginary that is evoked and thematized in a fantastic context. For the present study, the fantastic imaginary draws upon traditional notions of mythic fantasy and mass media articulations (Kozinets 2001) of stories set outside everyday reality, which are often set within a remythologized world (Armitt 1996). Thus, this research contributes to a richer theoretical understanding of how consumers evoke the imaginary into existence, and the antecedents that predispose consumers to evoking the imaginary. 1 Magic: The Gathering is a registered trademark owned by Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.
USING THE IMAGINATION 137 In addition, this research contributes by detailing a typology of thematization strategies that consumers employ to give form to the evoked imaginary. Further, imagination theorists have based much of their research on researcher introspection rather than data. In contrast, my research contributes by providing insights based on data, which are useful for improving our theoretical understanding of how consumers use their imaginations during experiential consumption. I begin with a selective review of, first, the historical treatment of imagination and the imaginary and, second, research of the fantastic imaginary in literary theory, which will inform subsequent discussions of the evocation and thematization of the imaginary.
This is followed by the method, which includes a section explaining TCGs. I then present a case study of a typical informant to illustrate the life themes and life worlds of TCG hobbyist consumers. In subsequent sections, I discuss insights derived from the data, prior to presenting a model of how the imaginary is evoked and thematized in pretence play consumption. I then discuss the implications of this model for consumer research. THEORETICAL FOUNDATIONS Imagination Imagination—which as a concept can arguably be traced back to Aristotle’s notion of phantasia (i.e., mental images) and its Latin translation, imaginatio—has been historically viewed as having an important role in all forms of thinking (Thomas 1998). Indeed in the late eighteenth century, Romantic writers such as Coleridge, Thorpe, Wordsworth, and Keats expounded the virtues of imagination as a mysterious source of artistic creativity (Kearney 1988).
In this research I use the term “imagination” to refer to the faculty, or natural human attribute from which the imaginary is derived. Viewing imagination as a faculty is recognized as having intuitive appeal. Yet, as a faculty, it has prompted speculation that the imaginary is a more appropriate term. Castoriadis (1975), for example, asserts that the imaginary is a more appropriate conceptualization for studying individuals in modern society. For Castoriadis, in an argument that would resonate with many marketers, the focus of modern society upon creating new products to satisfy wants, rather than basic functional needs, reveals the extensive influence of the imaginary. The imaginary helps producers create new products; it helps consumers determine what is desirable and fashionable. Thus, a more appropriate term is the imaginary, which includes in its definition evoking caused by sociohistorical antecedents (e.g., cultural symbols such as a nation’s flag), rather than the imagination as solely a human faculty linked only to the individual.
Recent accounts of imagination are notable for their differences. White (1990) has argued that imagination involves the capability to think of possibilities. It allows one to think of the impossible but has no connection with mental imagery. For White, imagining something never means visualizing mental imagery. In contrast, Thomas, Ellis, and many other scholars, have argued that the ability to visualize the imaginary is an important aspect of the role of imagination. Overall though, it is widely accepted that imagination is the faculty responsible for the imaginary (Iser 1993; Thomas 1999). Yet scholars have not explained properly how the imaginary is manifested.
Typically, discussion of the imaginary by imagination theorists emphasizes the formation of imaginary situations based on past memories (e.g., an imaginary castle based on what you think a castle should look like). This suggests that a better understanding of the imaginary may require a consideration of a consumer’s background, rather than a snapshot of the consumption experience. Likewise, Hamlyn (1994) notes that if we wish to better understand how people experience the imaginary, we must consider their individual reality.
The notion that researchers should regard reality as integral to any study of the imaginary has received support from literary theorists (Iser 1993). Researchers in this field have been particularly active in studying the imaginary experience of readers of fiction (Armitt 1996). This is relevant to TCGs as a rich stream of research in the literary field specifically examines the fantastic imaginary in relation to fantasy fiction. Given the overlap between characters and creatures depicted in a TCG like Magic, and in popular fantasy fiction, such as sorcerers and dragons, findings relative to the imaginary have the potential to be informative. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the fantastic (Smith 1993), a common feature of research here is that the fantastic involves an unfettered freedom of expression beyond the limitations of what is known and believed (Armitt 1996). Todorov (1973), for example, asserts that the fantastic represents a break from established reality. Accordingly, this viewpoint suggests that the fantastic, owing to its unique nature, finds its natural expression in the realm of the imaginary.
The notion that the fantastic involves the imaginary appears accepted in consumer research (e.g., Belk and Costa 1998; Kozinets 2001), as does the idea that the fantastic can involve the presentation of impossibilities, such as a flying carpet (e.g., Kozinets 2001). Central to the study of the fantastic imaginary is the notion that evoking the imaginary involves a negation of the real. Just as imagination theorists have emphasized the need to consider reality for an improved understanding of the imaginary, literary theorists have recognized the importance of the real to the creation of the fantastic imaginary.
While early literary theorists portrayed the real and the imaginary as mutually exclusive domains (e.g., Jackson 1981), Iser (1993) has argued that the evoking of the fantastic imaginary is a function of the interplay between the real and the fictive (i.e., unreal). For the imaginary to be present, the unreal compels the imaginary into existence, but this evoking is impossible without an acceptance of the fantasy setting. To this end, the real provides a necessary basis for creating a fantastic milieu that absorbs the consumer. Once created, this imaginary negates the reality from which it draws. Thus, if I read about a group of swordwielding goblins in armor, the swords and armor are based.
TABLE 1 INFORMANT DESCRIPTIONS
Gender Name Age Player type (playing experience) Description Male Henry 21 Hobby (1 yr.) Anglo-European, business major, from New Zealand Female Michelle 27 Hobby (4 yr.) Anglo-European, housewife, from New Zealand Male Joshua 25 Hobby (2 yr.) Anglo-European, anthropology major, from New Zealand Male Tom 23 Hobby (4 yr.) Anglo-European, business graduate, from New Zealand Male Grant 26 Hobby (5 yr.) Anglo-European, law major, from New Zealand Male Zane 32 Hobby (5 yr.) Hispanic-Anglo-European, logistics manager, from New Zealand Female Rebecca 23 Hobby (7 mo.) Anglo-European, arts major, from New Zealand Male Geoff 32 Hobby (3 wk.) Anglo-European, medical doctor, from New Zealand Male Craig 25 Hobby (2 yr.) Anglo-European, sales rep, from New Zealand Male Nathan 28 Hobby (6 mo.) Anglo-European, arts graduate, from New Zealand Male Mike 31 Tournament (6.5 yr.) Anglo-European, business lawyer, from New Zealand Male Roger 22 Tournament (5 yr.) Anglo-European, green grocer, from New Zealand Male Damien 25 Tournament (7 yr.) Anglo-European, postal worker, from New Zealand Male James 23 Tournament (6 yr.) Asian, engineer, from New Zealand Male Stephen 21 Non–Magic Player (Magic: 3 yr.; Jyhad: 2 yr.) Anglo-European, business major, from England on reality, even if the creatures are unreal. The fantastic imaginary therefore represents a negation of reality rather than a cancellation.
Elements of the real continue to feature throughout the story. This notion that the fantastic imaginary involves a negation of the real is now widely accepted (cf. Armitt 1996). In consumer research, previous theory recognizes a relationship between play and the imaginary (e.g., Holbrook 1995; Holt 1995). However, previous consumer research on the imaginary does not explore thematization mechanisms, as I develop them in this article. METHOD Interviews were conducted with 15 volunteer informants who played Magic ranging in age from 21 to 32.
I selected informants on the basis of three criteria. (1) Playing experience: players ranged from novices (e.g., 3 weeks playing experience) to players of considerable experience (e.g., 7 yr.). (2) Gender: as males predominate in TCG circles, I included two female informants. (3) Ethnicity: Anglo-Europeans formed the majority of informants, with one informant of Hispanic-Anglo-European descent and one of Asian descent. Informants comprised a purposive sample of players drawn from the broader population of Magic players within New Zealand. I contacted informants in person, by phone, or e-mail. I did not discuss informant identities with other informants, even when interviewing people from the same group of players.
Table 1 displays informant information. The English informant was a New Zealand citizen who had lived continuously in New Zealand for 10 yr. Researcher Perspective I have 6 yr. experience playing Magic and classify myself as a hobbyist who has never participated in a tournament but who has played in single and multiple-player formats, against friends and people who I have met at informal “Magic nights.” Wallendorf and Brucks (1993) highlight the importance of recognizing assumptions when the researcher can be classified as a member of the target population.
Thus, a colleague with expertise in consumer research (assistant professor level) but with no experience with Magic reviewed a draft of this article with access to the data to suggest improvements and to look for any such assumptions. Further, the associate editor suggested the use of negative case analysis, which provides insights into interpretation generalizability (Spiggle 1994). Thus, I interviewed Stephen who had played Magic but who now prefers another TCG called Jyhad and four tournament players (see table 1).2 Three of these players comprise the New Zealand national Magic team that competed in the Seventh Annual World Championships, Brussels, Belgium in August 2–6, 2000, and the fourth player (“Mike”) was a finalist to make the team in 2000.
However, the focus of this research is upon the evoking and thematizing of the imaginary by hobbyist consumers. Interview Procedure I told informants that the purpose of this study was looking into the attractions of playing Magic. I emphasized that responses would be confidential, anonymous, and would be used in no way other than for research purposes (Arnould 1998). A meeting time was then arranged, and I requested their permission to tape record the interview. This introduction differed for the final six interviews as I was employed at a different university.
These interviews began with the informant reading an information sheet outlining contact details for myself, an ethics committee, and the purpose of the study (available on request). I interviewed informants in their own homes or in other playing situations they felt 2 Jyhad is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, Inc., and White Wolf Game Studio, Inc. USING THE IMAGINATION 139 comfortable in. Of these, I interviewed five informants who were employed, in a quiet cafe or restaurant. Interviews averaged close to 2 hr. in duration with tapes transcribed by either myself or a postgraduate assistant. Transcripts ranged from 13 to 27 pages of single-spaced text. I began interviews with the questions, “Tell me how long you have been playing Magic?” or “What first got you into playing Magic?” The interviews involved an emphasis on allowing informants to tell their own story.
I tailored my responses to the discussion of the informant, and I sought to include issues, such as (1) the attractions of playing Magic and (2) their thoughts about an ideal game of Magic. This second issue moved away from informant retrospection toward a projection into a hypothetical future (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993), which gave insights into what meanings informants associated with Magic. Moreover, since visual props have proved useful to aid discussion in past research (Fournier 1998), I had a book containing reproductions of Magic cards. I interpreted interview texts using idiographic analysis (see Fournier 1998; Mick and Buhl 1992). I noted recurring patterns in the data with the interview number and transcript page number, and I kept two journals tracking the progress of my interpretations throughout the course of this 6-yr. project. Arnould’s (1998) critique on generating layers of meaning guided my text interpretation.
As sole researcher studies risk missing valid viewpoints (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989), I offered a draft article to two informants for feedback that I used to amend the article. The Play Context: Trading Card Games In TCGs, players represent wizards and use decks portraying creatures and spells. Players draw cards and win when they reduce their opponent’s score from 20 life points to zero. TCGs, such as Magic, differ significantly from role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, by (1) using cards with pictures (see the appendix for Magic card examples), (2) offering a win-lose result, and (3) having a reduced game time of within 1 hr. as opposed to 5 hr. or more for role-playing games (Duelist 1998). From a commercial viewpoint, TCGs, launched in 1993, now rank third in annual toy sales, behind only toy cars and crayons (Barron 2000). Globally, more than 6 million players in 52 countries play the game (Wizards of the Coast 2002). Consequently, researchers such as Lancaster (1999, p. 49) have labelled TCGs as “the biggest gaming phenomenon since role-playing games hit stores in 1974.” I now present a case-study description of Zane, a hobbyist player. Demographically speaking, Zane’s gender, university education, town of upbringing, and citizenship match the majority of hobbyist informants.
While he is above average for age, playing experience, and of a different ethnicity, he did belong to the majority of hobbyist informants who had experience playing tournament players (six of 10 informants). Zane’s views are also exemplary in revealing the salience of the fantastic imaginary expressed by informants. This case examines Zane’s life story, followed by an interpretation of the salience of the fantastic imaginary and TCGs to Zane’s life world. This provides a demonstration of the depth of understanding generated for each informant with an emphasis upon his or her life stories and salient personal experiences. IDIOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS Zane’s Life Story Zane is a 32-yr.-old national logistics manager for a global telecommunications company. He is qualified with two degrees: business and law, and lives with his wife of 3 yr. in the coastal town of Whangaparoa, about 45 min. drive from New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, where he works and was born and raised.
A typical day for Zane begins at 7:30 a.m. and runs until 6:30 p.m. At work, Zane spends much of his day preparing for a series of meetings, contacting customers, and studying legal contracts. Having been head-hunted from his previous employer 4 yr. ago, Zane has found himself in a high-pressure role with significant autonomy. He recognizes that with such delegated authority, little in the way of a safety net exists for those who fail to perform (“It’s a very empowering culture, almost scarily empowering . . . actually anyone is empowered to make any kind of decision.”).
Through his career, Zane has learnt an important lesson that has become a central life theme for him: the need for balance between his working self and his personal self. Whereas early in his career Zane’s main focus was generating income, he has learned that in order to be effective at work, he must periodically take time off to relax and recharge his batteries. Time away from work is important. Doing things not related to work is important. So I’ve started to learn that. For example, having holidays is actually better than not having holidays. Because when I do I think my effectiveness at work improves. Earlier in my career I wouldn’t take my holidays. Then I would change companies and cash in all my leave, and it was good from a cash perspective. But when I look back on it now, I wouldn’t do it.
I would’ve taken my leave and not taken the cash. I think there are people like Einstein who believe they can work seven days a week and 16 hours a day, but I’m not one of those people. Further evidence of Zane’s recognition of a need for balance is reflected in his choice of home. With a promotion and tired of the hassles of inner city living, Zane and his wife moved in 1998 away from their inner city apartment to Whangaparoa. Visiting the beach is now an important part of Zane’s relaxation regime. In the evenings he frequently walks upon the sands breathing in the sea air. Unlike their previous apartment, Zane feels here is a place he can relax.
Zane, the Fantastic Imaginary, and TCGs Given Zane’s life theme of being in balance/out of balance, TCGs offer a consumption experience that not only takes place in a situation separate from work but which is also an absorbing experience away from his current reality (“It’s escapism from the real world. You forget about your worries and woes and concentrate on something else.”). Zane typically plays Magic every second week on Sunday afternoons. His life theme of being in balance/out of balance, clearly influences how he approaches playing Magic. When hosting fellow players, which involves four people, including the friend from school days who introduced him to the game, he dresses casually, prepares a few bowls of chips and cups of coffee, and generally relaxes (“I just wear casual clothes which is nice after wearing a suit all week.
I usually don’t shave either.”). Game preparation has also become part of Zane’s weekend relaxation ritual. On Saturday mornings, he goes to the study where he sets out his Magic cards and assembles possible deck ideas. Before the interview, Zane proudly displayed his collection of Magic cards that he estimates at over 5,000 cards (approximately $1,000) and a hardcover journal in which he records lists of playing decks. Since the cards in Zane’s collection are almost all different from each other, Zane spends many enjoyable hours studying his collection for appropriate cards to combine in a deck (“The deck creation, it’s a real big part of Magic.
The whole fun of creating decks and looking through your cards, infinite options and variability in the decks you create.”). By way of explanation, in Magic, players choose which cards from their collections to include in their playing decks, which are often only 60 cards in size. I created a deck I quite enjoy, which is a fireball deck, which is really cool. You just sit behind these walls [i.e., cards depicting castle walls] and send roasting fireballs at your opposition. . . . It wasn’t ultra effective because my opposition had creatures that go straight through walls, but when it does work it’s great fun. During this selection process, Zane’s emphasis is not only forming a competitive deck but also imagining the fantastic creatures he is choosing (“When creating your deck, you know, you visualize each deck and the creatures and the characters on each of the cards.”). The fantastic imaginary appears particularly salient to Zane’s life world, when we consider his personal history. As a child, Zane grew up exposed to the tales of C. S. Lewis and particularly the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, from bedtime readings by his sister. Interviewer: How important were fairy tales and stories like that to your childhood? Zane: Hugely. A big influence on that was my sister because when I was about four or five she read The Hobbit to me, and then she bought me my first copy of The Lord of the Rings, which is actually long gone unfortunately. Read too many times. I remember it was 1,067 pages.
And I read it for the first time when I was seven. And it took me 18 months to read it. . . . And [sister’s name] read The Hobbit to me when I was really young. Read the entire story to me and she was into fantasy in quite a big way as well. She would come in each night and read me another, you know, four or five pages of The Hobbit. And she was a wickedly good reader of stories as well with voices and stuff. And she’d even sing the kind of songs out of The Hobbit to me as well. And she got me into the The Lord of the Rings, which really was my window into fantasy I suppose. Interviewer: What was the attraction of fantasy back then? Zane: I think escapism because it is totally nonrelated to anything you can kind of connect to the real world. I’ve always appealed more to fantasy than to say, a Robert Ludlum book, you know, or John Le Carre´ or things that were founded on society today.
Even though obviously, good books, good writers. But fantasy books are totally removed. Not linked whatsoever in any way from the everyday world. Those books, they mean something to me. Obviously The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s a bit of hero worship really. Zane displays a similar depth of feeling for his favorite Magic cards, which depict powerful monsters or humanoids that reflect an attitude he admires. For example, the card Ihsan’s Shade, which depicts the black silhouette of a warrior in armor wearing a horned helmet, remains his favorite despite his recognition that it is less effective in play than other cards he could choose.
Interviewer: What are your three favorite Magic cards? Zane: That’s quite hard. Ihsan’s Shade is one that appeals to me. Being a black kind of leader card. I think it’s just wicked. I just like the artwork on that one as well. This guy, like he’s really staunch. That appeals to me, but it is so expensive to cast I don’t think it’s a particularly effective card, but it’s a card that appeals. For Zane, TCGs initially appear to offer another avenue for consumption of the fantastic. One could argue that Zane is merely a devotee of fantasy novels who now plays a fantasy-based game. Yet to do so would overlook that TCGs offer Zane participation in a fantastic realm, which has occupied a special meaning in his life since childhood.
In play, Zane embraces a rare opportunity to take part in the creation of an epic fantasy battle. Here, he not only evokes the imaginary with favorite characters and monsters but takes part and directly influences the course of the fantastic narrative that unfolds during play. Unlike fiction where the story is predetermined and the reader is a passive observer, in TCGs, Zane is a central character of influence to the events that unfold in the realm of the imaginary.
Thus, Zane has eagerly adopted a pastime that offers an active, participatory consumption of the fantastic. Interviewer: How does playing Magic differ from reading fantasy novels? Zane: It differs I suppose because there’s a competitive element while in the book, in the story, you just immerse yourself in it. There are similarities. You do participate, but in the battles in Magic, they’re competitive. They’re against someone else. And you’re controlling it. That’s the fundamental difference. And that to me is one of the key links between fantasy books and Magic.
In an awesome fantasy book, you kind of want to be there. You want to participate. You want to have a say in how the battle goes. Or you see things that are done, and you think “Hey, that’s stupid. They should’ve done this, or they should’ve done that.” When you play Magic you get that ability. You get to play God, I suppose, and control the battle, and for better or for worse, you dictate what happens. Beyond active participation, TCGs also offer the enactment of dramatic situations. For Zane, a salient past event was reading epic fantasy battles that resonate with bravery, where heroes confront overwhelming odds. Consider Zane’s description of his favorite-ever fantasy fiction scene, which is from The Lord of the Rings.
Helm’s Deep. I thought it was just the most awesome scene. It’s where Aragorn, Legolas and company, go hide in this cavern at the bottom of this valley, and all of the orcs of Isengard are coming to fight them. It was a huge battle scene. It’s coming in The Two Towers [i.e., motion picture] so I can’t wait for it. Basically, it’s where these few last riders get cornered in this ravine, and they barrack themselves in behind this old deserted kind of castle. And then the hills just eventually get totally covered with orcs. It’s like the whole landscape has changed, and they ride forth to waste battle on them. And it’s kind of an awesome scene where they’re all expecting to die, basically, and they’re kind of going to go down fighting, which was awesome to me.
Just imagine riding into these millions of orcs. . . . Yet they win because something unexpected happens. Likewise, when Zane describes his favorite Magic games, his recollections parallel this fantasy fiction ideal. By playing Magic, Zane not only actively participates in a fantastic narrative, but the potential exists for him to experience this ultimate fantastic scenario. The random nature of the game, where each turn players select a card from a shuffled deck, offers a similar twist of the unexpected. Winning in such circumstances is highly satisfying for Zane (“You feel fantastic. . . . It’s a great feeling, and it definitely is one of the reasons that keeps you going in Magic, even when you get multiple thrashings in a row”).
Indeed, a connection can be made between Zane’s contextual concerns of staying true to his beliefs at work; his optimistic view of the future as offering opportunities and the message of these scenarios that hope exists even in dire circumstances. Within this fantastic consumption experience, Zane enacts the role of a sorcerer. In a fantasy realm, which Zane views as one of unbounded possibilities, where the ideal experience is overcoming overwhelming odds, wizards personify bravery and power, well suited to the turbulence of play. Further, Zane regards wizards as mentally powerful individuals since they are highly skilled in magic. This quality of mental proficiency has personal significance to Zane who regards himself as a “meticulous planner” regarding career and alternative investments.
Thus, while escaping from his current stressful work life, Zane also enacts the role of the fearless, mentally powerful wizard who has the capacity to succeed in conditions of uncertainty. Interviewer: What qualities would you describe a typical wizard as having? Zane: Well, I suppose it depends on the wizard. There are some common characteristics though. So obviously, mentally wise. Mentally intelligent. I’d say generally introverted. They all like to sit in towers and read books. Gandalf being an exception to that. . . . And mentally powerful and fearless. I think all wizards I’ve come across don’t show fear at all. You can say that for Saruman, Gandalf [i.e., two wizard characters from The Lord of the Rings].
Zane’s stories again reveal the salience of fantasy fiction to his interpretation of wizards. This is particularly evident in the manner in which he readily raises fantasy fiction when discussing the specifics of playing Magic. The cards that are used in play are compared against the fantasy fiction ideal that, in the case of sorcerers, coheres with Zane’s life theme of being modest and understated. Zane: The final [favorite] card is Prodigal Sorcerer. . . . The picture has some weasly looking guy who looks like he’s from medieval times. He doesn’t kind of fit the typical picture of a sorcerer [appendix]. Interviewer: What is your typical picture of a sorcerer? Zane: It’s Gandalf.
Tall guy, white long beard. Staff. Hunched over. Old. Centuries old probably. He’s extremely powerful but slightly understated as a wizard. Didn’t try and pretend he’s the most powerful man on the planet, but probably was. In play, Zane’s evoking of the imaginary is not immediate. Initially, his mind is occupied with tactical considerations of card combinations and the course of game (“Obviously when you’ve got a strategy there, you’re seeing the game. You’re seeing the tactics exactly and what card you need next, and hoping that it’s going to be there when you draw a card [laughs].”).
However, in a game where players take turns, the nature of Zane’s consumption experience changes when it is his turn. Specifically, Zane’s turn allows him the temporal freedom to evoke the imaginary. It is here; in a conscious act of boundary crossing (Belk 1997) Zane com-pels the imaginary to manifest. Once the imaginary is evoked, consistent with his desire to actively participate in an epic fantasy, Zane’s experience represents a first-person perspective. Here, Zane is a wizard commanding an army represented by the creature cards he has in play. Zane: When you send the Serra Angel into attack you just imagine this woman warrior racing in with her sword, flying in with her sword caning people. Or Nightmare [i.e., a flying horse—appendix] streaming in breathing fire and things. I definitely imagine imaginary battles going on. Interviewer: What perspective do you see that from in your mind? Zane: Yeah, well, it’s kind of like it’s happening around you, I suppose.
I always imagine that I’m like this wizard sitting on a throne or something at the back of the scene, just saying, “Attack,” to these particular creatures, and they go racing off across the field. Thus, when considered in conjunction with his personal history, this view of magic as a vehicle for the possible, provides Zane with a suitable avenue to experience the fantastic imaginary. In contrast to his enthusiasm for fantasy, Zane is disinterested in playing TCGs set in a science-fiction milieu. He regards this as too constraining, by virtue of the assumptions that follow from a traditional scientific perspective (Landon 1997). Given Zane’s life theme of being in balance/out of balance, where escaping the “real world” is paramount, he prefers the freedom of the fantastic imaginary to a scientific context.
Interviewer: Could you do a trading card game like Magic in a science-fiction context? Zane: I think it would be harder. I tend to see sci-fi as quite a different thing from fantasy. I suppose your typical sci-fi reader will possibly also appeal to Magic, but I don’t know if it would as much. I see sci-fi as something different from fantasy. Interviewer: How does it differ? Zane: Fantasy is totally unbounded. There’s no science you have to apply to it, while science fiction is just what it’s called. It’s fiction somehow based on science. Summary The previous section offers the case of the informant, Zane, to illustrate how the fantastic imaginary fits into his life world. For Zane, playing TCGs and manifesting the imaginary provides meanings directly relevant to his life themes.
Using favorite Magic cards, which represent characters, he evokes the imaginary by considering the card pictures. Evoking the imaginary offers Zane a fantasy experience where he can take part in epic fantasy battles and influence the course of events. In this imaginary experience, Zane sees himself as a wizard, an archetype that parallels strong characters from the revered fantasy fiction of his past. Zane evokes the imaginary in his turn when he has temporal control and is initiating or responding to an opponent’s moves. With a lifelong interest in fantasy, Zane is disinterested in playing TCGs set in the structured context of science fiction. This section suggests the value of considering the fantastic imaginary at the level of lived experience. Next, I provide a cross-case analysis that addresses the process by which consumers evoke and thematize the fantastic imaginary.
Given the salience of the fantastic imaginary to Zane’s life world, the following sections address (1) the evoking of the fantastic imaginary and (2) thematizing strategies for the fantastic imaginary, at a cross-case level. In each section, insights are drawn across informants and are organized corresponding to figure 1. Evoking the Fantastic Imaginary Consumer Predisposition.
As shown in figure 1, the process of evoking and thematizing the fantastic imaginary begins with two antecedent variables: consumer predisposition and play context. Consumer predisposition reflects inherent characteristics that influence a consumer’s subsequent motivation to focus attention on the cards and manifest the imaginary in play. A key aspect of consumer predisposition is what I term fantastic imaginary orientation. This relates to a consumer’s propensity to manifest the fantastic imaginary in consumption. It is the extent to which a consumer is orientated toward engaging in fantastic imaginary consumption. All of my informants reflected this orientation (e.g., Zane’s history of avidly reading fantasy novels), which included a belief that the fantastic imaginary represented an ideal vehicle for escapism.
They also believed in either magic as integral to a fantasy setting (all informants) and/ or as a potential form of explanation that suits the escapism of the fantastic imaginary (e.g., Zane viewed magic as a vehicle for the possible). Another central aspect of the consumer predisposition to evoke the fantastic imaginary is a desire for active participation in the fantastic imaginary setting (e.g., Zane’s desire to take part in a fantasy narrative). Thus, in addition to an interest in the fantastic imaginary, all informants exhibited a desire to be in the forefront of the action, and, in so doing, taking an active, participatory role.
For example, Geoff, another fantasy fiction enthusiast (i.e., fantastic imaginary orientation), was drawn to Magic as he is no longer an observer on the sideline of a fictional narrative. Instead like Zane and the other informants, he actively constructs his fantastic imaginary experience. Geoff: You find that Magic games are like stories. Wizards of the Coast says you’re trying to conquer a world so you play it that way, if you’re that way inclined, and I must say it’s quite interesting. Quite often you can’t get going and lose early, yet other times you have these great battles . . . where you’re right in the thick of it. Play Context. The other antecedent of the focal attention of consumers is the play context, which has two components.
First, as mentioned by Zane, consumers concentrate on tactical issues when observing opponent moves but evoke the imaginary when they have temporal control of the game. For instance, Grant noted that after deciding on his tactical approach he begins his turns by bringing creatures into play. Often he imagines these creatures summoned into existence amidst beams of “shining light.” Second, the mutual purpose of the play between players also influenced consumer motivation to evoke the imaginary. My data provided several examples of this. Zane, for example, has consciously selected a group of players who approach the game in a like-minded, imaginary-evoking fashion. Against a player with a win-at-all-costs approach, Zane finds the game annoyingly truncated when such players concede defeat when Zane is looking likely to win.
For Zane, such concessions rob him of the fantastic imaginary experience of triumphing in an epic fantasy battle. As such, he avoids tournament players who, he has found, approach the game in this manner. Instead he prefers a gaming experience where both players seek to win but not at the expense of the imaginary. Zane: I’ve played a tournament player and I didn’t particularly enjoy it because they’d just concede a third of the way through the game. As soon as it looked like my plan’s working, his plan wasn’t, which was particularly unusual as he would usually annihilate me, but I got no enjoyment from playing it. Because every time I was up, he’d concede. And every time he was up, he’d cane me. I think as a group they [tournament players] don’t give a toss about the artwork. I place a higher weight on the actual artwork, on the actual character, on the actual card itself, than on winning. In saying that, I hate losing [laughs]. Interviewer: So is it important to find fellow players of a similar skill level? Zane: Skill level is not necessarily an issue as much as similar aims. Like probably the most fun Magic games I’ve had were with Kevin and Jacqueline. Because Kevin, while he could play [a tournament players] and beat them. He knew the strategies, and he knew the cards backwards. But also, he preferred to play for fun. . . . Long games with weird decks and things, but totally more about the cards and the decks than about winning. Similarly, the tournament players interviewed revealed a complete disinterest in evoking the imaginary. Instead, winning was the prime focus with mental calculations of probabilities predominating in play. Roger, a national tournament champion at Magic, typified this approach: I don’t visualize. You’re processing just the critical information and so on.
The body language of your opponent and what you can get from that. Processing that information with the cards that you have, the situation on the table. . . . I think about what [cards] they have, and yeah, it’s more calculations going through my mind in terms of the context of the game, and what I’m going to do short-term and longterm, and wanting to win. . . . You have to find the weakness, the road to victory. Focal Attention and Evoking. Imagination theorists assert that evoking the imaginary requires an intentional act of consciousness (e.g., Iser 1993), and Thomas (1999) suggests that a change in attentional focus may be necessary for evoking. In a similar vein, my informants appeared to employ focal attention when evoking the imaginary. However, their focus is solely upon visual elements, such as Zane’s focus on card pictures instead of card text.
Likewise, Michelle discussed how she enjoyed playing decks with cards displaying elves. According to Michelle, when bringing the card Folk of the Pines (appendix) into play, she frequently studies the card’s picture immediately prior to manifesting the imaginary. Interviewer: What do you look at in the picture? Michelle: It’s the impact of the person with all the pine about them.
Interviewer: Do you look at the whole picture? Michelle: Well, I don’t look outside of her. There are other pine trees outside of her. I just look at her as a sort of mythical pine creature. And I see her face, and I see her velvet. It looks to me like a very thick, heavy velvet. I look primarily at her, I would have to say, and then secondarily at the pine coming off her, and then thirdly, the plants beyond. I imagine that. Interviewer: What do you imagine? Michelle: I see snow. I see pines and I see hills. And I see these sorts of people amongst the pines. She’s obviously one of the pine people. I see flowing velvet gowns and fur. I see gold. I see green. I see blue sky, the sun and [the] glistening of the snow.
This passage also reveals that Michelle primarily focuses her attention upon the visually depicted character and that there is no distinction between examining those aspects based on reality (e.g., robes) and those that are unreal (e.g., the dryad). Instead, consistent with Iser (1993), Michelle accepts both real and unreal elements and views the creature as an integrated whole when evoking the imaginary. The card acts as a liminal boundary marker for the consumer, a focal point that is central to the evoking of the fantastic imaginary. Thematizing Strategies Once activated, the fantastic imaginary is given form through one or more of the thematizing strategies that are displayed in table 2. The following section expands upon these strategies in relation to selected data.
Literal Embodiment. The first of the thematizing strategies I term literal embodiment (table 2) involves consumers forming the imaginary to reflect what they see displayed on a card that is in play. All hobbyist informants provided examples of the literal embodiment strategy (e.g., Zane’s emphasis on the leader-warrior depicted on the card Ihsan’s Shade). Tom explained how he imagined the creature Thicket Basilisk (appendix) in the form and shape displayed on the card (“What I see in my mental state is a basilisk just like the card. Like a lizard, a dragon. Yellowy-green. Scaly skin. Poised too, ready to pounce on prey.”). Interestingly, Scott (1993) suggests that a latent influence in Western society, until this century, is a distrust of pictures as illusory false representations, owing to a focus in visual art upon observed reality.
Yet all of my informants readily evoke and thematize the imaginary based on pictures, following a strategy of literal embodiment, suggesting that this distrust is not evident for a fantastic imaginary consumption experience for hobbyist consumers. Embellishing Strategies. In addition to literal embodiment of the visual stimulus, consumers employ embellishment strategies to augment the imaginary. The first of these strategies, extrapolation, involves consumers “filling-in-the blanks” for details not displayed by the card. Geoff, for instance, when playing a Shivan Dragon visualizes the parts of the creature not visually displayed, such as the remainder of the wings.
He does this by extrapolating the visual information of skin color and texture to complete the creature that is represented in the imaginary. Geoff: I find that I imagine the whole body. I think it wouldn’t make sense to just do a part. When you are imagining like this and a picture is saying a dragon looks like this or looks like that, I find it ends up looking like the picture. Interviewer: What about the bits you can’t see on the card? How do you know what they look like? Dragons aren’t real. Geoff: No, they’re not, but I must say I think everyone would have an idea of a dragon. You know there’s a lot of links to myth, and you can go to any race in the world and see dragons, and I sometimes think that Magic is kind of clever the way it does that.
There are some very interesting pictures. And if the pictures are done properly, it shouldn’t be a problem anyway. Consumers also use ornamentation to build upon literal embodiment by adorning the imaginary with minor details not present in the visual stimulus. One informant, Joshuawhen playing the card Sol’kanar the Swamp King visualizes this character wearing a shark-tooth necklace, despite its absence from the card. Other examples cited by informants included adding runes to sword blades or the addition of ornaments, such as earrings. While consumer researchers have widely studied the personalization of consumption objects (Belk 1988; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991), here, consumers, rather than singularizing goods, are personalizing the imaginary. Informants tend to embellish and, consequently, personalize the imaginary after giving it form through a literal embodiment strategy. Informants also employed historicization to embellish the imaginary.
This strategy imbued the imaginary, and the characters within it, with a historical context. Joshua explained how he and his opponent drew a map of their fantasy world, which they then divided up into “battles.” Campaigns to win a forest, for instance, required three successive wins to conquer the territory. Another informant, Nathan, exhibited this strategy in discussing how he selected which cards to use when playing. Knowing his regular opponent tended to play black cards, led by the character, Lim-Duˆl’s Paladin (i.e., a magical knight), Nathan took pride in choosing his own champion card, the An-Havva Constable (appendix). Nathan views this character as a veteran who lends him confidence through recollections of past success.
Nathan: Playing the An-Havva Constable has lead to games that are exciting. My wins against [player’s name] have increased in frequency enormously. Even against his black decks, they’re more often, though I like to think we’re still evenly matched. [Player’s name] is a big believer in his paladin card. Whenever he brings it out he talks in this deep voice “Now you will pay!” [laughs]. Interviewer: Do you do the same with the An-Havva Constable? Nathan: No, not really, but he’s my main man. He’s there to take on the paladin when he arrives. We both enjoy that, it’s like they’re battling through the ages. Rather than a polyphonic fantasy conflict, here is a heroic battle enacted against the wider historical context of previous encounters between fantasy characters. Belk and Costa (1998) also highlight the notion that heroic tales have a sense of past history.
Interestingly, for my informants, such a strategy was common where they regularly played against the same people (e.g., Zane’s weekend Magic group). Historicization thus helps generate a mythos in the imaginary play world that was important for several informants who, like Zane, sought an epic fantasy encounter. Consumers also embellish the imaginary using character interaction. As moves are enacted, informants visualize the imaginary characters interacting by means of brief comments (usually one-liners) and/or coordinated teamwork. An example of this strategy came from Joshua: Joshua: My troops are always aware of each other. Interviewer: So do the characters discuss things? Joshua: Not usually. I mean you don’t have time in a game to imagine some big conversation. But you can imagine fun sequences of how people do things. Interviewer: Such as? Can you give an example? Joshua: Well, I once had a game where in the last turn I had both a Cyclops and this Air Elemental through the defenses of this guy, and as I decided which to attack with, you know to win the game, I did imagine the elemental knocking this guy over towards the cyclops who belted him with his club. Kind of like a double team like you get in wrestling.
You know, one guy does one thing and another does another. By employing character interaction, Joshua gives additional vitality to the imaginary by envisaging a unified, team effort. Here his “troops” pursue the same end of vanquishing their foe without hesitation or dissent. Grant often applies the same strategy at the conclusion of his turn when he prepares for his opponent’s move (“One thing I do is see a leader, a commander if you like, say ‘Shields up!’ when my turn ends.”). For Grant, character interaction represents a form of boundary crossing ritual marking the end of his turn, and his subsequent transition from the realm of the imaginary. After visualizing this, he focuses at a tactical level upon his opponent. Expansion Strategies. Expansion strategies comprise two main types (see table 2), both of which address the perceived limitations of the visual stimulus regarding the number of creatures depicted.
The first is multiplying strategies, which consumers employ to increase the number of creatures represented in the imaginary. Here the emphasis is upon creature replication in order to dramatize the conflict. Geoff, for instance, applies this strategy when conjuring an insect horde. As he explained, the card Yavimaya Ants depicts only one ant that he found unsatisfactory. Geoff: When playing this [Yavimaya Ants] . . . I imagine a lot of ants because it always seems quite limited to me to just have one or two ants. So it’s obviously good for your imagination if you imagine a swarm. Interviewer: This is just for cards with one creature? Geoff: Yeah, there are a couple of other ants cards which show more than one, but hang on, how often do you see like two ants? In a battle you’d call forth a mass of them. Interviewer: Do you see them as different? The ants you imagine? Geoff: They pretty much look the same.
You see I don’t think so much about individual ants. It’s more the number in play. Interviewer: What’s the importance of the number?Geoff: Oh, the battle. Sometimes what happens is you imagine a swarm attacking, and it’s so much better when that’s a large number rather than a small one. Many examples of multiplying strategies are evident in my data across a range of cards that depict solitary creatures despite titles stated in the plural (e.g., Vodalian Knights). Hence, this strategy involves consumers using the card title to thematize the imaginary by setting an expectation as to the number of creatures represented. If the visual stimulus does not meet this expectation, consumers employ a multiplying strategy to thematize the imaginary.
As Geoff’s comments illustrate, multiplying strategies are used for creatures that are not viewed by informants as differentiated individuals of note (e.g., Zane’s distinguishing between fantasy characters by name, such as Gandalf or Saruman, vs. his use of the generic term “orcs”). Thus, multiplying strategies allow consumers to create an epic backdrop to the fantasy conflict through sheer scale of numbers. This differs significantly from literary research. Dietz (1998), for instance, highlights that clones in a fantastic context act to subvert reader notions of individualism, yet here consumers replicate creatures in the imaginary to aid feelings of epic confrontation to their consumption experience.
The second expansion strategy, complementary addition, involves the creation of a subordinate creature of a different type to that represented by the card. For instance, Craig employed this strategy for the card Frozen Shade, which depicts a solitary hooded figure with glowing red eyes. Like Zane and other hobbyists, Craig’s thematizing of the imaginary is influenced by fantasy fiction. In this case, artwork he has seen based on the novel The Lord of the Rings, which depicts hooded wraiths riding black horses. For Craig, the thematizing of the imaginary for the Frozen Shade involves expanding the number of creatures by adding a horse he imagines such a shade would ride upon, even though no such horse is displayed on the card. Interviewer: Is there a benefit in adding creatures like this? Craig: Yeah, of course, the issue is one of enjoying playing Magic.
Adding things like this Shade’s horse, is the way to do that. I mean, I enjoy playing Magic. And I mean why should I change that [i.e., imagining] every time I play? It’s something I enjoy, and it’s why I play the game. Interviewer: Would it be less significant to you without the horse? Craig: Well, I could pick a few cards where I wouldn’t do that and the pictures were good enough. But there’s no impediment to changing what you imagine. It just highlights the differences in background for books I like, history, and so forth. The Frozen Shade, it looks like a Nazguˆl and that’s interesting. You see to me, Magic is a game where there should be interpretation.
Thus, consumers expand upon visual stimuli in play by generating suitable imaginary props, not only in terms of inanimate objects such as with ornamentation, but also by increasing the number of creatures through a strategy of complementary addition. In so doing, consumers thematize the imaginary to attain an imagined ideal that reflects their personal histories. Replacement. When informants view visual stimuli unfavorably they employ a replacement strategy. For example, Zane excludes from his playing decks cards with pictures that hold little aesthetic appeal. However, in instances where a card’s function is so useful that to exclude it would greatly undermine the competitiveness of the deck, replacement strategies are employed when such a card is brought into play. For example, Nathan discussed the spell, Lure, which depicts a “goofy” cartoon lizard caught by a fishhook, and how he instead chooses to visualize this spell as “electricity.” Nathan: I like to use the Lure as it helps wipe out an opponent.
I’m a little bit nervous about letting them build up like with a weenie deck [i.e., a lot of minor creatures]. If I open the doors and I get problems later in the game, I can’t go back and think ‘I shouldn’t have let them do that.’ So I like to think Lure changes that even if I don’t like the art. Interviewer: How do you see the Lure when playing it? Nathan: More as electricity pulling them in. I don’t like the art on this one. . . . Now I don’t expect to have many cards like this, because the art is usually very good. For Nathan, replacement of the visual stimulus of the Lure card with his depiction of energy when thematizing, protects his enjoyment of the imaginary. Likewise, informants used replacement strategies for spell cards, which visually depict a representation of the spell caster (e.g., Spitting Earth; see appendix). In these cases, my data indicate that informants substitute the visually depicted creature with an imaginary target or spell caster.
DISCUSSION At a time when consumer researchers are increasingly emphasizing the importance of the imaginary to understanding the consumption experience (e.g., Kozinets, Sherry, Storm et al. 2002; Pen˜aloza 2001), this research informs our understanding of experiential consumption and how consumers generate the imaginary. The findings of this research make contributions that advance our theoretical understanding of the imaginary in experiential consumption, beyond a categorization of “real” versus “imaginary.” I describe how the imaginary is evoked into existence, and I examine several antecedents (see fig. 1). Second, my research contributes to our understanding of how the imaginary is given form by consumers. My typology of thematization strategies (i.e., literal embodiment, extrapolation, ornamentation, historicization, character interaction, multiplying, complementary addition, and replacement) uncovers the mechanisms bywhich consumers construct a fantastic mindscape (see table 2).
This theoretical illumination of the evoking of the imaginary and typology of thematizing strategies is potentially useful to consumer researchers in other areas. For example, in the domain of experiential consumption, Kozinets, Sherry, and colleagues (e.g., Kozinets, Sherry, Storm et al. 2002; Sherry et al. 2001) have argued that future themed retailing environments will seek to elicit fantasies, as consumers blend fantasy with reality. These environments essentially thematize the imaginary into a desired form. For instance, the elements of evoking (e.g., real and unreal elements; focal attention; consumer predispositional antecedents) could be incorporated when examining the liminal threshold (Sherry et al. 2001; Sherry and Schouten 2002) where consumers boundary cross between reality and the mindscape realm of the imaginary.
Likewise, the thematizing typology could be used in relation to how stimuli, such as retail props, and the spatial design elements of buildings are purported to result in a “shift in imagination” among consumers (Sherry et al. 2001). Testing alternative designs and the thematizing strategies these designs evoke (e.g., extrapolation of a baseball uniform presented in a display case or historicization in relation to a brand mascot) and the influence of temporal control (e.g., the time a consumer has to study a display) would allow further insights into the inner worlds of consumers. Interestingly, Kozinets, Sherry, DeBerry-Spence et al. (2002) highlight the ludic gaze, where consumers focus attention on visual images and are entranced in a thematized space. They offer the intriguing example of consumers viewing sport on televised screens at ESPN Zone.
A consumption experience where consumers resemble “entranced ‘zombies’” (Kozinets, Sherry, DeBerry-Spence et al. 2002, p. 35). The authors suggest that “like a dreamer, consumers may be experiencing a rich inner world” (p. 31). As such, my model and typology may prove useful for research into visual evoking that opens the doorway to an inner world of the imaginary. For example, such a consumer seated in a chair viewing a televised Nike ad may evoke the imaginary of playing golf alongside Tiger Woods (e.g., literal embodiment; character interaction). Likewise, the model and typology of the imaginary may also be useful in how consumers address agentic concerns through the subversion of market significations.
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