Market Research Surveys can learn a lot from RPGs

I’m sure at some point throughout our lives, we’ve all completed a market research survey. Surveys, generally, are a tool utilised by organisations or research agencies to find things out the public’s perception of something, whether it’s Wayne Rooney or wasabi peas. They’re handy because they’re relatively cheap to administer, compared to other forms of market research, and can easily provide some comforting numbers which say something about whatever product is being analysed.

Now, I’ve never been a fan of contemporary market research; surveys in particular. I do not profess to be a marketing expert, or a research buff, but there’s a growing trend of insurgency against the status quo of market research. Indeed, there are already a number of eloquent expositions of why market research doesn’t work, that are already out there. While (in my opinion), surveys don’t work, and are inaccurate, realistically, it’s sad to say that they’re not going anywhere fast. There are actions that can be taken, however, within the existing frameworks of market research surveys, that can serve to make such surveys more accurate. This is where RPGs (Role Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades, in case you were wondering) come in.

I’d like to start with a story. A couple of days ago, I filled out a market research survey. It was a cold, miserable day, and I was sad that I couldn’t go running. This all could have affected my mood, which could have understandably heightened, or had an effect on my responses to the survey I completed. There was one thing this survey was guilty of, though, which essentially forced me into giving inaccurate answers. This was poor research design.

Let’s break this down for a minute. A survey, generally, is a mass of questions that you answer about a certain product, or a certain product range, or market sector. Let’s say, for example, you were filling in a survey about chewing gum. Usually, at the beginning of every survey, there are a few verification questions that check that the survey you’re about to complete is relevant to you. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to assume that one of these verification questions would ask if you chew chewing gum. Personally, I have bought and chewed gum in the past, but don’t make a habit of it. However, in most cases, my answer would probably serve as an adequate response for the purposes of this survey. Getting past the verification questions would then trigger an onslaught of questions about every colour, shape, and flavour of chewing gum under the sun. In essence, I would be made to answer about chewing gum I had never used before, or had no prior experience with. If I am asked about how I would bring a certain brand of gum up in a friendly conversation, if I’m blatantly honest, I wouldn’t.

My own experience with surveys (I’m signed up to a service that e-mails me the things daily) has led me to believe that the common survey is all too linear for anything of worth to be derived from its results. Let’s return to my own survey I completed a couple of days ago, which coincidentally, was about chewing gum. If I state that I don’t chew a certain brand of gum, and have never purchased it, I don’t expect follow-up questions about how I think that certain brand of gum tastes, and what I think of that company’s transmedia communications, such as their Facebook or Twitter page. Really, I think that in order to yield more accurate results, the vast majority of surveys should alter the later questions in a survey, depending on the answers given to the initial, post-verification questions.

To me, this realisation stirred musings of a certain familiarity, about things that are a bit closer to home, at least for me. What I’m describing sounds like a recent (but not new) effort in RPG design, to construct varied, non-linear narratives, that change depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game.

I should explain myself. When I say that the movement is recent, developers like Eidos Montreal, who are working on the much-anticipated Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are waking up to the fact that the player, depending on the choices they make, need not see every single level built into a game on a single playthough. What we’re talking about is a branching level structure, which in itself is something has been around for decades, such is evident in the level structure of arcade classic After Burner, which shifts you to various levels depending on whether or not you achieve certain objectives as you’re playing. Games with multiple endings have also been around for a considerable amount of time, with the most apparent example to me being Silent Hill 2, some versions of which had 6 individual endings.

This isn’t about multiple endings, however. This is about a branching narrative structure embedded into surveys that alters what questions are asked depending on the answers given. For instance, returning to chewing gum, if I explain early on that I’ve never tried Wrigley’s Big Chew (TM) gum, I don’t expect any more questions on it for the rest of the survey. What would I know about this particular chewing gum that I’ve never even tried? Sure, you’re going to end up with less numbers at the end of the day, but at least these numbers are more reliable, than, say, quizzing a collection of old people on who their favourite Teletubbies are.

This isn’t to say for a minute that I’m agreeing that market research is either good or useful; I just can’t see things changing any time soon. I’m only trying to do my bit to make it less terrible.

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