Play up! play up! and play the game!

The gamification of research has now passed from idea to working reality – despite this, the debate continues. While its critics argue that it is open to bias, proponents point to a new era of participant engagement. But are respondents (players?) giving richer answers because they are engaged with the ‘game’, or does the game just give them better context?

The issues here are connected to ‘reversal theory’ – the idea that individuals experience and react to the same stimuli differently within specific contexts, i.e. when at work, an individual may have one opinion on a topic, but ask them on the weekend and you are likely be given a different answer. Neither answer is disingenuous, but rather the responses come from different psychological states. Respondents are not inert particles that will react time after time in the same manner. In essence, people are inconsistent.

The framing of a discussion is equally important, if not more so, than the content, but increasingly surveys of all types tend to be designed along functional lines – the design principle seems to be that bare is beautiful.  Worse still, in the absence of context, the respondent creates their own – this is because the content is reduced to the minimum, but the topic is still framed by the survey design. However, marketing deals with emotional as well as rational thought, and there are many who point to gamification as the means of introducing ‘real world’ context.

For a good example of the relevance of gamification, we could ask you ‘what is your favourite wine?’ A short closed question with 8-10 pre-codes plus ‘other specify’. Alternatively, we can show you an image of a wine bar, or a wine list, or a supermarket shelf… with a realistic selection for the respondent to see, consider and select from. The image creates the psychological state for choosing wine within that context. The gamification process provides a more immersive context for the respondent, therefore aiding engagement. The result: richer answers.

While it is important to remember that the gamification process needs to be applied correctly to avoid bias, it gives us the opportunity to field more useful surveys by creating ‘emotive space’ – the context of real world decision making – and engaging with respondents in a more relevant way. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, ‘the medium is the message,’ and no matter how probing you think your survey question might be, if it is delivered in a standard questionnaire format, much of the inquisitive power is lost. ‘What you write is nothing compared to the effect of the written word’… and that perspective opens up a whole new debate.