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Does Competition Equal Gamification? And Is It Good for Market Research?

The “gamification of market research” is a hot topic these days. Contests, badges, clues, and prizes are filling (or dare I say “littering”) the online research landscape, so the thoughtful and nuanced presentation by Peter Harrison at the recent ESOMAR 3D conference came as a refreshing frenzy-buster.

As Harrison notes, games in market research are an antidote to the boredom-inducing survey, or even the carefully neutral discussion question. By engaging participants in competition and problem-solving – by effectively creating fun – games change the mood of participants from what behavioral economists refer to as the passive, “cold” state of a survey respondent to the aroused, engaged “hot” state of a gamer. They have the potential to heighten a participant’s engagement with the topic/research question, and to create a cognitive and/or emotional state that is closer to what people actually feel during the mental state or behavior that’s being studied.

So, for example, rather than simply asking people about their frustrations regarding housekeeping, Harrison and his colleagues created a game board modeled after Monopoly in which a roll of the dice could cause them to land on a “frustration space,” i.e. a property, where they must articulate a discontent in order to buy that property, or, if it’s already owned, pay “rent” in the form of well-being points to the landlord. He reports – and I believe – that both competitive charge and the frustration induced by playing “Mopopoly” creates precisely the kind of hot state in which housekeeping annoyances are more likely to be recalled and articulated with gusto. As another example, prediction markets (such as the kind we’re experimenting with right now at Communispace) invite people to invest play money or points in the concepts and products they believe in, with the amount of their investment proportional to the confidence they feel about their predictions, and the opportunity to buy and sell as new information or “market” trends influence them.

PreTweeting, an example of prediction markets applied to social media research

Prediction Markets, where respondents are given a sum of theoretical money and asked to invest it in the products or concepts they believe in most, has been a growing research trend . PreTweeting, seen above, applies the concept to the social media world. (Source: Mashable)

In both of these cases, competition is an element of the game, but not the only or even dominant element. But in other “gamification” examples shared at the ESOMAR conference and elsewhere, competition between players/participants is not only central, but all too often the sole justification for calling the process a “game.”

And that’s when I start to worry.

A survey doesn’t become a “game” just because you have cartoon characters posing the questions, or animated emoticons rather than numbers on a rating scale. And a research process also doesn’t become a game just because you introduce rivalries or winners.

For example, a popular technique to promote participation in some online communities is to award badges and/or prizes to the person who contributes the most, or whose postings garner the most praise (usually in the form of stars or upward-pointing thumbs). While you could argue that this enables what the “crowd” considers to be good content to rise to the top, I think it has a potentially chilling effect when the goal is to hear honest expression from a diversity of voices. That’s why in our communities, we make a habit of visibly acknowledging postings from less active members, of encouraging dissent, and of promoting free speech while enforcing respect.

Sharing is not a competition, and insight generation is not a popularity contest.

Harrumph. What do you think?

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