Not just playing around

Editor's note: Tom Ewing is digital culture officer at London-based research firm BrainJuicer Inc.

If the research industry gave an award for Buzzword Of The Year, gamification would’ve nabbed the prize last year. Gamification is an umbrella word for the act of adding any kind of game mechanic to a non-game situation in order to influence people’s behavior. For marketing researchers, for example, that could involve turning survey questions into a game in order to improve engagement – as detailed by gamification champion Jon Puleston of GMI in a two-part article series in the late January and early February editions of Quirk’s e-newsletter.

A gamification paper given by Puleston – exploring the effects of turning surveys into game-like experiences – won an award at the 2011 ESOMAR congress. But Puleston’s tireless advocacy is only part of what made gamification such a hot topic last year. Another piece of work, by BrainJuicer’s Peter Harrison, about using games to explore decision-making contexts, was voted best presentation at ESOMAR 3D. And Ray Poynter’s Web-driven NewMR organization kicked off 2011 with a virtual mini-conference on the subject.

Puleston’s pieces for Quirk’s jumped right into the practicalities of gamification and how to apply it in a survey context. I want to look at its roots and possible future. If you understand where gamification comes from, you’ll be in a much better position to clarify its purpose and potential in research.

Gamification has two qualities that combine to make it unbeatable at sparking discussion, even as we move into 2012. Firstly, it promises to make research fun – for participants, researchers, maybe even buyers. Games are the most vibrant art form of the 21st century and gamification hints that some of their allure can be sprinkled over our less glamorous business. But secondly – and more importantly – gamification sparks researchers’ creativity. “Gamification is an idea that stimulates the imagination, that opens up the door to innovation,” says Puleston. “I already see it empowering innovation across the market research industry.”

A cynic, however, might point out that the reason gamification is such a spur to creativity is that it’s usefully vague. For a start there’s a gap between what researchers imagine gamification is and the more mechanical systems associated with its use by marketers. Gamification software provider Bunchball, one of the leading companies in the field, offers a fairly typical list of services: leaderboards, points systems, badges to be handed out for achievements. While you can easily imagine these being used by panel companies and MROCs – indeed they already are – they don’t have a lot in common with the idea of gamifying surveys.

But with a mandate as wide-ranging as “use game mechanics,” gamification is what you make it. Is it a set of techniques or a way of thinking about research design? Is it consistent with existing methods or revolutionary? Is it about respondent engagement or does it cast its net wider? And most important of all: Is it proven or dangerous? The answers to even the biggest questions around it vary depending on who’s answering.

Where gamification comes from

To understand how an apparently simple concept can be so slippery and controversial, it helps to understand where gamification comes from. The term was coined by marketers at the end of last decade – it doesn’t show up on Google Trends until 2010. But its intellectual roots go back further than that. Gamification may draw inspiration from game design but its real parents are two phenomena which are already having a huge impact on marketing and research: behavioral science and social media.

Behavioral science, as its name implies, concerns itself with behavioral change and the reasons for it. This article can’t do justice to a colossal subject, but in a nutshell what behavioral science teaches researchers is that the idea of consumers making decisions based on rational trade-offs is highly questionable. Many decisions are based on a host of irrational biases and rules-of-thumb, which researchers need to take into account if their work is to present a realistic picture of human behavior. What does this have to do with gamification, though? The answer is that many of the mechanics games use – particularly for rewarding and motivating players – also tap these behavioral biases. For instance, psychologists have discovered that intermittent, unpredictable rewards are more motivating than predictable rewards, so most games are careful to offer occasional rewards or bonuses.

Behavioral science explains much of gamification’s toolkit, but it was social media that created the conditions for it to really thrive. The most powerful motivations gamification taps are social ones – the drive to compete, collaborate with and copy friends. Social networks were not only terrific venues for these activities, they were an amazing source of new participants. The most prominent early example of a social network building game mechanics into its operations was the location-based service foursquare, whose systems of competitive “Mayorships” and publicly displayed badges set a template for thousands of marketers.

Box of tricks

In marketing terms, gamification seems inextricably linked with engagement: It’s a box of tricks designed to increase loyalty, usage and enjoyment of a product or service. Engagement in research is also a hot topic, so predictably it’s featured heavily in the ways gamification has been used by researchers so far. But the research spin on game mechanics has been subtly different.

Puleston, whose work helped spark researchers’ current interest in gamification, says his initial interest in game mechanics dates back to 2008. “We asked people to recall some ads and found we got significant improvements in feedback when we made it more competitive,” he says. Follow-up experiments using role-playing methods in surveys showed similar results and Puleston realized that, “when we made things fun for respondents we could get a lot more feedback.”

This improvement in feedback quantity and richness is the cornerstone of basic research gamification. As detailed in the Quirk’s e-newsletter articles, Puleston has continued to experiment with breaking down the barriers between research and entertainment. Instead of simply picking a favorite brand, participants in a Puleston survey, for example, find themselves on desert islands or saving products from house fires.

Goal is completely different

It all sounds like fun. But is that enough? Betty Adamou, founder of gamification start-up Research Through Gaming, makes the point that gamification specifically tailored to research needs has only just got started. “The goal in research is completely different to the goal in marketing,” she says. Even if both disciplines preach engagement as a primary reason to gamify things, the kind of engagement they desire is very different. Gamification for marketers is about stickiness – keeping people coming back and doing things they otherwise might not. Research faces a stickiness problem too – high dropout rates and falling response rates – but its solutions have tended to lean toward making surveys shorter and easier, not more involving. The engagement promised by gamification in research is a creative, inspirational engagement.

For Adamou, what’s important isn’t the process, but the attitude – not gamification but making things “gameful.” “Being gameful is approaching something with a playful attitude and making it more like a game,” she says, putting the emphasis on the respondent experience, not simply on the mechanisms used. She calls her research participants “playspondents” and wants to create a new kind of research experience, one that will let her reach hard-to-crack target audiences and ask new kinds of questions.

Not universally embraced

For all their apparent success in engaging respondents, gamification techniques have not been universally embraced by researchers. Broadly, the objections fall into two camps. The first, and most serious, caveat is that gamifying survey questions in this way induces enormous research effects: Altering the context of questions doesn’t simply make them more fun, it changes their meaning. If you’re running a continuous study, gamified questions might potentially derail your data.

The second caveat is more of a shrug, and often comes from qualitative researchers: Are these ideas really anything new, they ask? Focus groups have included game-like elements for decades and many of the more exciting, recontextualized questions detailed by Puleston read like quantitative forms of projective techniques.

This second objection is easy to answer: Absolutely, research gamification has been happening for years. Every survey, community or focus group we work on has something fundamental in common with a game: It’s a piece of user-experience design. The aims of the design are different – put crudely, we want information; game designers want word-of-mouth and repeat business – but a bad user experience is as fatal to a research project as it is to a game. So the novelty of gamification is more a shift in emphasis – putting these experiential aspects to the fore – than it is genuine innovation. The hidden message of gamification is that our choice isn’t between creating research games or not doing so – it’s between making dreadful games or slightly better ones.

The first objection is tougher to overcome. Does gamification change research data? The answer seems to be a qualified yes: Puleston, in collaboration with Element 54’s Bernie Malinoff, has started to work on assessing how far his gamified questions change the content (rather than just the quantity or richness) of the data they generate. For instance, do gamified concept tests preserve the rank order of the concepts they assess, when measured against more traditional approaches? For many questions, the order stays the same, but for some it changes. Puleston and Malinoff’s findings – available in their award-winning ESOMAR paper – are unlikely to reassure research buyers in charge of tracking studies, for whom consistency is vital.

Changing research for the better?

Of course what such investigations don’t tell us is whether gamification is changing research data for the better. All shifts in data collection techniques have research effects but if the shift is consistent, or if the new methods can be shown to better reflect reality, this is not necessarily a problem.

Puleston is convinced that the richness of gamified data suggests this improvement but it’s also worth asking why gamified surveys might change data to such an extent. Peter Harrison of BrainJuicer believes he has the answer – it’s because games change the context of decision-making, an insight that takes us back to gamification’s roots in behavioral science and motivational psychology. “What behavioral economists call the ‘context gap’ is the biggest secret problem in research,” he says. “The context you make a decision in affects that decision but not in ways you can rationally access when you’re filling in a survey.” But games, says Harrison, change the context by putting people in emotional “hot states” where they make different decisions. So if researchers can create games that put people in the state they’re in when they make the decisions they’re trying to measure, they should end up with results from games that are better, not just different.

This context-based gamification is very much in its infancy. Obviously, for it to work, researchers will have to demonstrate that they can “hack” decision-making context using game techniques. There is some precedent for this – game designers themselves have a keen interest in the emotional and cognitive states their games create, with psychologist Mihaly Czicszentmihalyi’s work on highly-engaged “flow” states a foundation stone of game design thinking. The exploration of cognitive states offers a potential solution, at least, to the questions that naturally arise from turning surveys into games. Do games change research outputs? Yes – for the better.

Break away from their roots

If there’s a future for gamification in research, it seems to me most likely to lie in these kind of experiments – ones that break the techniques away from their marketing roots and look for uses that are specific to research. Finding these uses will help those researchers interested in the topic to survive the growing backlash against gamification. Away from research, this is gathering pace – led initially by game designers themselves, who slammed many gamification efforts as either shallow or simply exploitative. A game can’t be reduced to its mechanisms, they would argue, offering the less catchy “motivational design” as an acceptable alternative.

Gamification experts in marketing have learned to pay lip service to these criticisms but the solutions they offer still tend to fall back on the predictable trinity of badges, points and leaderboards. You don’t have to be a gaming purist to realize that there must be a limit to the number of unlockable achievements or badges a consumer will care about. By moving away from these crude mechanisms and emphasising its unique uses in research, gamification’s advocates are giving it a fighting chance of becoming more than just another buzzword.