2 years of creating boardgames for qualitative research – an interview with myself

OK, maybe the title is a bit misleading. It is not an interview with myself as in “my two personalities discuss between themselves”. It is an interview by Betty Adamou, the author of Games and Gamification in Market Research. Maybe the idea of interview itself is overated, she merely sent me a list of bulletpoint questions while she was still working at her book, and later encouraged me to publish my answers. What better time than now, when I am celebrating two years since my first fully-fledged research game.

  • What are the top 3 advantages of using board games in F2F research?

The obvious advantage of board games in F2F research is engagement. Modern board games are highly engaging because they offer players a lot more than just the fun of the game itself. We live in times when people increasingly look for opportunities for sharing, intimacy and connection away from screens. Some board games have rules that normalize behaviours like deceiving, bluffing, or manipulating other players for your own gain (even old Monopoly has launched a cheaters’ edition). There’s something very human in us that gets hooked on that rare opportunity to let the little dark forces within run loose for a while. Board games also seduce with increasingly appealing designs, high production values, little physical pieces that people get attached to, personalize, collect etc. All this can (and must) be translated in games designed for research to reach high engagement levels.

Board games are also great at breaking social barriers with surprising velocity and efficiency. You have a diverse group you need working together for innovation or creative problem purposes? They will start bonding very fast over the game. Everything is still mediated through the conventions of the game itself, and that provides a safe context for people to open up (if the game requires) without feeling weird for disclosing too fast or too much. This fosters a sense of closeness between strangers which is more difficult to achieve (at least takes more time) in other focus group/ workshop settings.  

Another undeniable advantage of the board games is when you look for creative input (creative problem solving, innovation) from the research participants. Our education systems deliver future adults that worry too much about being wrong and have little social incentive to exercise lateral thinking.  Again, the board game provides this alternative, safe space, with its own rules, where it becomes safe to come up with any crazy ideas (and even more, it might win you the game). Role-play also works great in games – because games are inherently about role-play. Tell a respondent in a focus group to try to sell someone something, and you will often get an embarrassed, or worse, indifferent interpretation of a flat discourse. Create a challenge in the context of the game, with a clear reward, and the situation will be totally different.

  • What are the top 3 disadvantages of using board games in F2F research?

Designing a board game for research takes up a lot of resources – intellectual, time and money (production values are important). To get the benefits I mentioned earlier is not enough to have a pair of dice and a board and to transform a discussion guide in a deck of cards with questions on them. This is why for me the first question is whether the game is justified or not in a certain situation – can it deliver more than other regular form of interviewing? If not, just do what is needed.

Also, one of the pitfalls of board games is that sometimes people get too competitive – the risk being that they will end up creating a player persona that is less reflective of who they are and more of who they need to be in order to win the game. This is less important in innovation/ creativity focused games, but it becomes an issue if we play discovery games, aimed at exploring behaviours, attitudes, tensions etc.

This pitfall can be anticipated and screened for in recruitment – no extremely competitive people in the game. On the other hand I find it is best to have the game played by teams and include some (at least moderately) competitive people in each team, to keep the energy and motivation up.

Another strategy that helps dealing with made-up player personas is to incentivise people to be genuine. For example, you get double the points if you can prove a claim you made is true (maybe by showing something on your phone, like a picture or a video or by calling someone that can verify it)

  • What types of research or types of participants (in terms of age or gender?) do boardgames work best with?

Talking about added value, my best experiences with board games so far have been in the area of creative problem solving or innovation types of approaches. And from those, I saw clearest differences in the co-creation sessions when clients and respondents played together.

Of course, the more familiar participants are with games, the more they like to play in general (and this would typically be 20-40 years olds), the faster and better they adapt to the game setting. They are also easier to recruit with the promise of “a board gaming session”. But I have noticed that even people who don’t play often in the regular day to day life can be great players of research board games – because board games appeal to the human side of each of us. Irrespective of gender and age.

  • Why do you choose to develop tailor-made board games every time?

It is just like you create a new discussion guide for each new project – you mix & match some techniques that always work and you also create new, adapted sections to each objective. I don’t always re-work completely, I recycle formats or game mechanics (e.g. dice and snake & ladders type of progression, with challenges and dares along the way) but at least I have to change the challenges and the questions.

Still, one of the things that make it difficult for me to recycle too much is the storytelling part. As a board game player, my favourite part is the story of the game – where is it set, who are you supposed to be as a character, what is your (his)tory. Are you a space trucker carrying cargo from one planet to another and trying to avoid space pirates? Or are you a bronze age farmer trying to make a living and raise your rather large family. I try to include elements of storytelling in my games, to fit the category or the objectives, and this means changes must be made (including at the level of design and physical pieces used).

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