FEATURE1 December 2011

Game the system

What gameplay mechanics can we apply to research? Erin Leedy and Erica Ruyle of Market Strategies International pick out some of the most promising and explain how they might work.

Gamification is a simple concept to grasp. Make boring, everyday tasks – like taking part in research – more fun through the application of game play mechanics. That doesn’t mean shooting Nazi zombies à la Call of Duty or racing high-performance cars like in Gran Turismo. The key is to look at games of all types to learn how they encourage progression and reward the completion of certain tasks to create more enjoyable, engaging and compelling experiences.

Here are seven gameplay mechanics that can be applied to online focus groups, surveys and communities.

Achievement: The virtual representation of accomplishment

Points, virtual currency or other digital rewards, such as Xbox 360’s Gamerscore conceptThis mechanic is already being employed in market research online communities (MROCs) via points or virtual currency. Points are awarded to increase respondent satisfaction with the task and to encourage engagement/task completion. This is a starting point for gamification and may be the only mechanic employed.

Virtual Items: Digital prizes, rewards, objects found or earned within a game

Facebook gifts, Foursquare badges (pictured)
Beyond points, we might develop digital rewards or virtual objects to reward research participants for reaching a participation marker (completion of a survey, two days of involvement in a threaded discussion). We would award virtual items to increase participation level or to encourage longitudinal participation (involvement in a long-running panel, for example).

Status: The rank or level of a player

Players are often motivated by trying to reach a higher rank. Level 85 Paladin in World of Warcraft (pictured), SuperUser in Foursquare, a game leader board
Within a market research panel or customer community, we could bestow higher status – or even leader board ranking – on those who participate at an above-average level. This status would be visible to all participants, with the intention of encouraging increased levels of participation, both by those with higher status (to keep the status level) and by those who have yet to attain higher status.

Viral game mechanics: Rewarding the player for encouraging more people to play

Farmville gifts for inviting friends, Groupon deals that unlock when purchased by a set number of people
In the same way that some research efforts employ referral mechanisms, we could allow for – and even encourage – referrals in online research. Respondents would earn a higher incentive, whether real-world or virtual, for referring qualified participants. We’d need to proceed with caution here to guard against inadvertently encouraging unwanted or unethical behaviour on the respondent side.

Ownership: The act of controlling something, having it be your property

Owning property in the boardgames Monopoly or Life, holding the title of Mayor for a location in Foursquare
This mechanic might be best employed within a customer community setting. Customers could vie for Top Insider or Adviser of [company] status; for companies with market cache, the title might hold some appeal and encourage an increase in participation.

Real-time mechanics: Information shared as it’s available

Real-time score updates – of the player’s and any competitors – cause instant reaction, whether positive (gratification) or negative (de-motivation)
If we are able to share some results immediately after question/task completion, this mechanic – though likely controversial for many sensitive research topics – may result in increased respondent satisfaction and enjoyment. Even the sharing of limited data may result in a positive experience for respondents, and would not put the security of critical research findings at risk.

Communal discovery: encouraging an entire community to work together to meet a challenge

DARPA balloon challenge, Foldit crowdsourced puzzle game for protein research (pictured)
This game mechanic could help to innovate (or perhaps rejuvenate) online research, particularly on the qualitative side. We could encourage group collaboration in response to questions or posed problems, and push the level of individual engagement and group collaboration more towards what we’d see in in-person research sessions.

Spoiler alert

Although we see promise in gamification, there are significant risks to consider.

  • Encouraging cheating and other unwanted behaviour. Many game mechanics might push respondents to cheat in order to increase the positive benefit they receive, whether to gather additional virtual items, boost their status or increase their actual monetary incentive. As we experiment we need to study the positive and negative impacts on participation quality and frequency as well as the quality of data.
  • Setting up a system that breeds more professional respondents. There’s general agreement that professional respondents are an undesired by-product of traditional monetary-based incentives. We do not yet know whether the adoption and use of game mechanics and game-related incentives will diminish or exacerbate this problem. Again, this is an area where we need to begin to conduct experiments and look at the outcomes before making the shift to digital and game-based incentives.

Erin Leedy is VP, research and consulting, and Erica Ruyle is senior methodologist at Market Strategies International.


Game mechanics categories taken from the SCVNGR game mechanics playdeck (http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/25/scvngr-game-mechanics/)


13 years ago | 1 like

The article is nice, but none of the above work with a boring 40 minutes survey, a poor questionnaire or a bad community moderation. Most of the gameplay mechanics listed above have been used for many years by technology/ panel companies in order to reward, recognize and engage people to participate in online research activities (surveys, OFGs, MROC's, etc.). The problem is that no game mechanism work as a good incentive or motivator if the respondent experience is poor. I miss the usage of engaging wording and interactive features, combined with other "game mechanisms" to create a better respondent experience, increase collaboration with research and therefore higher quality results.

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13 years ago | 1 like

not all online users are moronic idiot robots. "Gaming" and giving stupid "badges" and "points" are insulting and a waste of time. Treat the end-user with dignity and respect our right to some sense of privacy. I take part in surveys that are intelligent and may improve user experience, not for what I can get.

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13 years ago

Whilst you have covered off the basic of a reward system in the list, you have not mentioned the primary driver of participation .. peer acceptance. This is especially true in the online community arena where respondents want validity for their thoughts or opinions. The community environment and methodology makes the gameification of research simpler than the traditional online quant or qual in the respect that you can have your peers rate your comments (highest rating wins) and also allows for inter-personal connections to be created (most number of friends / followers = Highest influencer). These need to be considered as identifiers of winners in this new brave world of ours

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