Today, consumers desire to interact rather than to just mindlessly consume. Consumers don’t want to just read; they want to comment. They don’t want to just watch TV; they want to live tweet. They don’t want to just dance at a new club; they want to share the whole night on Instagram.
Consumers want to do more than just “enjoy the moment.” Modern consumers crave what consumer scientists Darren Dahl and Page Moreau call “constrained creativity.” Constrained creativity is defined as an activity with two components. First, the activity has enough freedom for consumers to be creative. Second, and importantly, the activity has enough structure to guide consumers and measure their success, such as through norms or goals.
When we look at what modern consumers love, we readily see these two components. On Twitter, people like the freedom of making original comments but also benefit from the structure of twitter’s enforced length and trending hashtags. With modern expansive video games like BioShock, the freedom is to explore and decide, but within the structure of the game.
Modern technology allows products and experiences to tap into people’s most ancient and basic motives. We love to compete, show off and create. These are basic feelings that even babies and animals crave and enjoy. Modern pleasures like the open world video games and Twitter engage modern consumers in a way that other activities of the past just do not. They provide more than basic entertainment; they provide a semi-structured “game” and an opportunity for self-expression.
Consider even the mundane phenomenon of self-serve frozen yogurt. The reason frozen yogurt has become so popular may not be entirely due to its taste, but to the opportunity for constrained creativity. There is joy in self-serving, there is pride in crafting the perfect swirl and there is self-expression in creating a yogurt that is uniquely personal.
From self-serve frozen yogurt, to Twitter, to video games, entertainment is changing. Whether this change is overall “good” or “bad” for people is an open debate. However, one thing is for certain: This change is powerful enough that if any business cares about obtaining and retaining consumers, they’d better feed people’s craving for constrained creativity. They must understand the modern happiness equation: Happiness = freedom + structure .
Of course, this equation has always been true, but today’s consumers are getting more and more tastes of constrained creativity. With each new bite of a “freedom + structure” activity, consumers develop a new consumption appetite that cannot be satisfied by the entertainment of the past. Today they crave more.
Four Examples of the Freedom + Structure Magic Formula
#1 The IKEA EffectA Harvard University led study finds that when people build or assemble things (like an IKEA bookcase or frozen yogurt), they like the things more because of the effort and self-involvement.
#2 Imagined Involvement The Tonight Show‘s Jimmy Fallon involves TV audience members directly on Twitter through frequent hashtags. Even if most viewers do not tweet, they may imagine what they would tweet and feel a positive sense of imagined involvement.
#3 Instant Feedback Modern technologies provide immediate feedback. If you take a good selfie, you will get likes. If you outsmart a video game boss, you will level up. This tight connection between effort and immediate reward can make technology-based interactive experiences more desirable than real life effort.
#4 Interactive Art Chicago’s famous Bean (also called the “Cloud Gate” by no one but the Wikipedia entry) is an artistic “mirror fun house.” Adding to its popularity its launch coincided with the iPhone launch and the proliferation of the camera phone. The Bean invites visitors to create their own art via creative photography or to just take a very interesting selfie.
This Sunday is “May the Fourth Be With You” Day or more commonly known as “Star Wars Day.” Our graduate student Troy Campbell combines his research and personal experience to analyze why this day and Star Wars itself means so much to many.
In an epic South Park finale episode, Kyle Broflovski argued the importance of Star Wars, saying:
“It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more real than any of us.” (quote shortened)
Maybe this seems a little hyperbolic, but on May the Fourth, the official Star Wars Day, the idea doesn’t seem so far off. This day drives home the point every year — Star Wars matters a lot to a lot of people.
On “May the Fourth Be With You” Day, droves of Americans will dress up and celebrate, and I will be one of them. On no other day of the year will I don any cultural garb, but on this Sunday I’ll show up to Durham’s large Star Wars Day festival with a replica lightsaber at my side.
So many Americans have massive cultural festivals like Holi and Cinco de Mayo, or even Coachella. But I just have May the Fourth. It’s my day to dress up and be immersed in myths and narratives. The Greeks had the Gods of Olympus, my Texas friends have the army of the Alamo, and my Coachella friends have the mythical band Neutral Milk Hotel. But me, I have the Skywalker family. I am, of course, exaggerating — but only a little.
For many Americans, even if they are part of other cultural groups, Star Wars is still a big part of their cultural landscape, their lingo, and even their fantasies. In a recent Duke University research project on consumer culture, we found that most adults who love Star Wars have as adults also fantasized about being a Jedi. Star Wars is more than a fictional world we observe, it’s a world we are part of. People dress up as ghosts for Halloween, but on May the Fourth, they don’t just dress us as Jedi Knights, they pretend to be Jedi Knights — even if only privately in their minds.
Yet May the Fourth is not just about individual fantasy, it’s about connection. Star Wars remains the most popular way sci-fi and fantasy nerds of all kinds connect. Though Marvel, the works of Joss Wheadon, Tolkein, Doctor Who, and Star Trek contest in nerd culture, Star Wars reigns supreme. Star Wars is a cultural icon for many reasons, but a main reason is its simplicity and the fact that it’s easier to “master.”
Though Star Wars is full of prequels, video games, cartoons, and a recently nullified Expanded Universe, at the heart of Star Wars, there are just three movies that almost everyone has seen. And if you know those three movies well, then you can consider yourself a Star Wars master. Some nerds will disagree with that and say if you don’t know everything about Star Wars Legends Mara Jade or robotic Darth Maul then you aren’t a true Jedi Master. But for most of us, the original trilogy is all we need to feel like a master. And feeling like a master of Star Wars feels good.
When people feel a sense of “mastery” over objects, concepts, and stories, they tend to like, love, and identify with those stories and things. As the psychologist Lita Furby theorized, “That over which I exercise… control becomes a part of my sense of self.” Over the past decade, projects lead by researchers at Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, and here in our center at Duke University have begun to find empirical support for the emerging psychological concept of mastery and the positive effects it can have on ownership, identity and happiness.
Star Wars has become something we don’t just physically own on Blu-Ray; it’s something we own in concept. It’s part of our extended self. It’s a cultural touch point for us where we grow and exercise our mastery of its fiction and mythos. It’s how we connect with others in the present, it’s part of the memories we have of our past selves, and it’s part of the fantasies we have for our mythical future selves.
As human beings we long to become part of something bigger than ourselves. For many people Star Wars can in many ways serve as this bigger thing. When celebrating and consuming the massive culture phenomenon and community that is Star Wars it is hard not to feel as though you are truly caught up in the magical force. So this Sunday, no matter if you celebrate with full cosplay, a movie marathon, or just a tweet, I hope that this magical force may be with you.
If you like Troy’s thoughts on Star Wars you may also like his academic perspective on nerd culture in articles such as The Magic Stars Wars Episode VII Needs to Recapture, How to Love Movies Kids Do, and his psychological analysis of the Fantasy Vessel Theory in movies.