Qual research doesn’t need saving: trust the boardgames industry on that!

This article is based on the two presentations I have delivered on the topic, one for IIEx Amsterdam, in February 2018 and one for ESOMAR Best of Romania, in October 2018.

Has any of you noticed that the commentary in GRIT Q3-Q$ 2017 for the qualitative methods section headlines: “Can online tools save qual?”. This coming from the fact that, in this day and age of technology driving so much innovation in market research, all industry studies show that qualitative research remains mostly face to face and personal.

Are we, qual researchers, lagging? Do we need to be saved?

I am an avid gamer, both video and boardgames – so I couldn’t have missed the analogy with the gaming industry:

Gaming is so close to being fully immersive. Facial recognition software is almost at the point where you can scan your face and render 3D versions of yourself that don’t look like disfigured Marvel villains. Virtual reality headsets – once they’ve sorted out the fact they currently make you feel a bit sick – are nearly able to drop players into the thick of it. Gesture control tech isn’t far off when it comes to characters emulating the movements of players. Humans are almost one with the machine.

And yet we’re apparently in the midst of widespread board game revivalism. Why would people be so enthralled with stationary bits of plastic and card when they have all these expansive interactive worlds accessible to them?” – Vice article, March 2016

Another extremely interesting fact about boardgames is that on Kickstarter they made 8 times more money than video games in 2017.

What does it mean? Does it mean that the board gaming industry is threatening in any way video games? Not by far. Yet, it means that there is something profoundly human about playing a board game that cannot be achieved via any of the expensive interactive worlds enabled by technology.

Because it has to do with boardgames being in-person, conversational, real time. Just like qualitative research is. So really, let me spoil right now the ending of this article: there’s nothing wrong with being in-person and conversational. On the contrary.

But let’s talk a bit about the “humanity” of board games, and, implicitly, about the humanity of qualitative research. But also, about how board games can teach us, researchers, to use the humanity of our methods in order to push people understanding even further.

  1. Intimacy and connection (please notice that this is more than simply “the need to socialize away from screens”)

Are you familiar with the game Dixit? Using a deck of cards illustrated with dreamlike images, players have to guess cards that match a title or cues suggested by the “storyteller”. If no-one guesses, the storyteller loses. But, the trick is that if everybody guesses correctly, the storyteller also loses, so one strategy would be to create descriptions that would evoke something to part of the players whereas nothing to the others – often descriptions based on common memories or on shared passions. In other words, reaffirming the connections and celebrating the intimacy between players.

Face to face, physical interaction and conversation are clearly enablers of intimacy and connection, which people crave for. So then, why don’t we, qual researchers flaunt this huge advantage? Why don’t we plan more often for intimacy and true connection with participants in our research designs? Maybe because, as researchers we are trained to view subjectivity as something that may mud the waters rather than help. It’s time to re-consider that.

I was once doing a project that had an ethnographic approach, teamed up some clients with some seniors and had them spend some time together, doing day to day activities relevant for the scope of the research. Then we had a couple of days of debriefing and putting together conclusions and next steps. And in the second day of the debriefs, as a surprise, I invited all our respondents, for lunch, with food cooked by themselves. In the end, it was about making things meaningful. It was the time spent together initially plus the time spent in the debriefs considering those people’s lives and tensions  plus the unexpected reunion, the sharing of the gift of homemade food really deepened a connection and made the whole process much more meaningful afterwards.

  1. Bluffing, deceit, trust, creativity

Edward O. Wilson, the famous and controversial biologist, argues that evolution is  a game with rules grounded in a combination of “altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, mutuality, reciprocity, cheating and betrayal”.

In a culture that stigmatizes a lot of the above, the success of the lying genre of boardgames (such as Mafia or the Resistance) could then be attributed to people simply finding outlets to satisfy an evolutionary need. While multi-player video-games are mostly about cooperation and competition, there’s a lot of boardgames that very successfully ask people to bluff, lie, cheat and be as creative as possible to win.

It proves people find it very rewarding to be allowed to be genuinely and fully human. And it seems in gaming this is best achieved in-person, via table-talk. As Quintin Smith, writer and editor in the gaming industry says in an article for The Guardian: “AI opponents are notoriously crap at bluffing and lying over an internet connection is about as much fun as anything else in a long-distance relationship.”

So, what does it mean for research, and specifically for qualitative research? These are a lot of behaviours and attitudes very difficult to research because of their low social-acceptability, and yet players seem to easily volunteer these kinds of behaviours in a safe, game-like, role-play setting.

We have become increasingly wary/ cautious about trusting how people answer questions, why not use more role-play, enactment, psycho-drama (all already in the qual researcher’s tool box) to explore real-life behaviours?

  1. Physicality

Think of board games… now think of vinyl records or paper books. Quintin Smith, again: “In an increasingly digital culture we long for something tangible to lavish affection on, collect, customise or lend”.

Design and high-production values are very important to the board games industry. To an extreme, one of the latest trends is legacy games where as  you play you get to permanently alter a physical map of the game by sticking stickers on it, writing names etc. At the end of the game you get a physical memento of it, but at the cost of not being able to replay that scenario ever again.””

There are also games such as Two Rooms and a Boom that, along with a social deduction and hidden roles components, rely on the space and movement of players (e.g. between two rooms) as part of the game play (and it’s a hostage situation story, so you can imagine how the “tension actually fills the room”).

Physicality, as an element of board games success is a reminder of the fact that we live our lives in bodies, and we (still 😊) experience the world in bodies. Thus, a research process that makes use of our bodies –  will most likely lead to a more realistic kind of response.

Apparently counter-intuitive, it may be that our best chance to understand very abstract matters about people by having them use their bodies for expression. Like the work of David Gauntlet from the University of Westminster where he asks people to make things (e.g. using Lego Serious Play, arts & crafts supplies and even video-cameras 😊) as a way to tackle a very abstract research challenge: exploring identities.

* * *

In conclusion I don’t believe qual needs to be saved, I still believe we are the cool guys of the research industry because of our humanity, because of our curiosity about what makes people interesting. What we really need is to follow through on this curiosity, be in touch with all the thinking in psychology and social sciences to really understand how humanity works. And only after that choose our tools – whether they are in person & conversational OR technology-based.

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