Survey gamification: a road to nowhere

no mans sky

Games are huge – and with the launch of No Man’s Sky huge takes on a whole new meaning. I love games – enough to once set up a game company. And, at Voodoo, we believe that research should see itself, at least in part, as in the entertainment business.

So you would think we would love survey gamification. We don’t. It’s a bum idea.

Of course we can learn a lot from the huge and hugely successful games market. They can teach us a great deal about pleasing environments, intuitive design and simple interfaces.

And they can also help us consider different ways of responding and matching them to different types of thinking. Sometimes our survey needs to be in shoot-em-up mode – capturing rapid responses in point and click style. Other times we need to be in strategy, problem-solving mode, uncovering ‘type-2’, considered thinking.

But gamification is a dangerous path. It is an attempt to ‘sweeten the pill’. It takes a number of forms.

One is ‘let’s make our survey look more like a game’.  This is well-intentioned and it sounds harmless. Trouble is the way it is executed almost invariably has negative effects. Game ‘window-dressing’ obscures what your study is really about. Game mechanics often actually makes your survey slower and harder to complete (dragging without purpose takes a lot longer than tapping.) And visual gamification as adornment can trivialise your content and seriously patronise your respondents.

Fortunately, with the decline in Flash, most of the sillier excesses of this mode of thought appear to be on the way out.

The other is to go one step further – a survey shouldn’t just look like a game it should be a game. To a game-lover like me this can sound beguiling – but then I am a game-lover. Lots of people are not. Developing a truly compelling game that draws most people in is hard.

More than this, games impose their own sets of rules and objectives. Game your survey well and people may play – but are they now responding in the way you want them to? How do you ensure that playing the game does not ‘distort’ their answers? The desire to win changes things.


So let us not try to turn our surveys into games. Rather, let us learn from the way successful games treat their players. They put the player at the centre of the action. They are built with the player in mind. They engage and immerse.

There are not many online surveys you could say the same of. Most give scant attention to respondents. Rather, they are slaves to the machine, factory workers on a production line. Turn this on its head – make the survey the slave of the respondent – and you will rarely need to turn to playing games to keep them engaged.

Put the user in control. Give them an environment they can shape and feel comfortable in. Ask questions in ways that draw people in and get them thinking. Develop surveys that dynamically respond to their responses. Through involvement and listening you can earn attention. And you will be rewarded with deeper, richer, fuller responses.

Games have a lot to teach us. But take out the wrong lessons and you’ll aim at the wrong target. And that’s game over.