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What It Is and What It Isn’t — 8 Things Everyone’s Asking about Gamification

Posted by Jon Puleston on Nov 13, 2012

We are approaching the end of a particularly busy year, in which I had the honor of speaking at events on four continents about a topic that now appears to have become part of my identity: Gamification of research. In those sessions and in the GMI booth, I and my colleagues had dozens of discussions with people interested in the topic. Thinking back over those chats, we noticed that some questions came up repeatedly. So, I thought it would be helpful to provide this brief Q&A.

1. What is gamification?

The term “gamification” has been used so much lately that it has come to mean many things depending on who is discussing it and the context of the discussion. The term gamification has begun to encompass many aspects of art direction or copy writing of surveys — which I am not sure I am comfortable about. We use the term to describe the specific process of applying game mechanics to surveys to make them more fun and engaging – resulting in better data.

For several years, GMI has been studying and testing ways to improve surveys, ranging from exploring the role and effective use of imagery, to reframing questions to be more personalized and emotionally evocative, to applying rules and time limits, to adding competitive elements and reward mechanics, some of which could be described as gamification. We have found that applying these techniques can yield dramatic improvements in dropout rates, respondent behavior and data quality.

I would like you to think of gamification as a weapon in the arsenal we have built to make surveys more effective. In the same way that employing humor in advertising can give ads more impact, gamification techniques can make surveys more compelling. But they are not a panacea for making surveys more engaging and effective. Chiefly for this reason, I personally do not like to be labeled a “gamifier” of research. I liken the services we offer to those of a great ad shop, putting together art direction, copy writing, strategy, media and all the other elements to ensure that advertising achieves maximum results.

2. What are some common misconceptions about gamification?

I think people sometimes are under the impression that we’re talking about creating video games, like Farmville or Modern Warfare 3, or that the process is complicated and requires a lot of software development. On the contrary, gamification can be as simple as changing the way questions are worded.

It is important, however, to make the right kinds of changes to achieve the intended results. We have found that this is achieved through working closely with the client to understand the objectives of the study, and to conduct experiments and pilot tests to ensure we get it right.

3. What are the most common gamification techniques in survey questionnaires?

The following are just a few of the techniques we have tested and documented the results in our papers.

Question Style

Pose questions in a way that makes respondents want to answer them. One technique is to frame the question in a personal context. For example, instead of asking “What is your favorite color?” ask “If you were to paint your bedroom in one of these colors, which would you choose?” Another personalization technique is to ask a question that triggers emotion as the respondent considers the answer. For example, the question “What would you wear?” becomes “What would you wear on a first date?”

Another way to fully engage respondents is to ask them to use their imaginations to insert themselves into invented scenarios. Examples of questions using this technique include, “Imagine you owned your own radio station and could play any music you liked. Which of these artists would you place on your play list?”and “Imagine this brand is a human being. What words would you use to describe this person?”


Rules can be used to transform almost any task into a game. Applying rules to questions can be done in several ways. Some of these include adding a specific scenario to the question, such as in the example above with the first date scenario, applying word limits, like “describe yourself using only 7 words,” and applying selection limits, such as “If you were able to keep only 3 items in your wardrobe, which would they be?”

Competition & Reward

Adding the element of competition makes questions more compelling. For example, respondents can be asked “What are the foods you like? List as many as you can in 2 minutes.” And adding a reward mechanism, such as winning points for predicting how others have answered or allowing respondents to gamble virtual money greatly increases survey enjoyment.

Interactive Elements

Using interactive technology to mirror the experience respondents are accustomed to on the web, questions are designed using high impact images, animation, video, scrolling, image pickers, sliders and other elements. Simply replacing words with images and graphics where possible can result in better participation rates.

4. Which would you actually recommend?

Our biggest successes in implementing these ideas have been where we have identified a motivating trigger to get people to respond to questions on a certain topic. In one example (I have many more), we did a project for Sony music where we were trying to encourage more open ended feedback. We “gamified” the survey by asking respondents to imagine they were being interviewed by a journalist. This transformed the quality of feedback, adding more than 100 words to the volume of feedback from each respondent, as well as improving the clarity and thoughtfulness of their answers.

As far as specific techniques are concerned, two very successful means of transforming surveys into fun experiences are quizzing and personality tests. Instead of asking which ads respondents are aware of, you can quiz them about which advertising straplines (or taglines) go with which brands. Likewise, we have found we are able to transform long pieces of segmentation research by telling respondents that they will find out “what type of person” they are once they have completed it and giving them some feedback.

5. What effects have you seen by employing these techniques?

Across the board our tests have shown that respondents:

  • Spend more time considering the questions
  • Spend more time answering the questions
  • Provide longer, more complete answers
  • Give higher quality answers
  • Enjoy doing the surveys more
  • Are more willing to do more surveys.

We have witness doubling of time invested in answering questions, halving of dropout rates, Anywhere from 15-100%+ improvements in the quality of data in various experiments. However, I am afraid I am not in a position to give you any guarantees that using gamification in your survey will improve data any more than an advertising agency can guarantee that its advertising campaign will work. These are all creative techniques that succeed or fail on the quality of the creative execution.

6. How does gamification impact data?

The impact on data is considerable, making results measurably different. When respondents are more engaged, they provide more and better data. However, care must be taken so that gameplay mechanics, such as competitive and reward elements in particular, do not interfere with respondents’ desire to answer honestly. Also, there is an impact on repondents’ state of mind, and their increased enthusiasm can push up certain metrics, such as brand scores. As a result, we do recommend testing any technique you wish to employ to examine the impact it may have on the data.

7. Does gamification work for multi-country studies?

We recently conducted an extensive study on this topic, and short answer is yes. After interviewing nearly 3,900 respondents in seven countries (U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan, Singapore and Korea), we concluded that the instinct to play seems to be a fundamental human characteristic that transcends cultural boundaries. The creative and gaming techniques that work in Western markets seem to work equally well, if not better, in the Asian markets we tested.

8. How much budget do I need?

Some of these techniques can be implemented for no additional cost, particularly those that involve basic rewording of questions and adding rules. Many of these techniques do add to the cost of a survey (we estimate around $1-$2k on a full-service project) and so you must consider the cost/benefit ratio. The threshold level at which gamification can begin to add real value is when you are spending over $10k on sample for your research project.

Jon Puleston has published several award-winning papers on gamification and interactive survey design, including The Game Experiments, winner of the ESOMAR Congress 2011 Award for Best Methodological Paper, which can be downloaded from ESOMAR. To learn more about Gamification and GMI Interactive, visit the GMI website, where you can download white papers, case studies and more details on GMI’s state-of-the-art survey design technology and data capture techniques.

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