Games for Change 2017 (Part III): A Healthcare Market Researcher’s Perspective

This is part 3 of a 4 part report on the 2017 Games for Change Festival held in NYC (July 31-August 2). Click here to see part 1. Click here to see part 2. Click here to see part 4.

Like any other provider of products or services, game designers are intensely curious about the interests and experiences of their target audience. On the second day of the 2017 G4C Festival, Gametheory, a Vermont-based game developer, shared results of a survey it recently conducted with its target market of gamers. Casually sprinkled in among the findings was this intriguing factoid. According to Gametheory, while male and female gamers are similar overall in their engagement with violent video games, their choice of weapons within these games differs. Males, it seems, tend to use guns and explosives. Females tend to use knives and their hands.

A quick Google search turns up a May 2015 Washington Post article suggesting these findings are at least directionally true in the “real world” as well. According to FBI Supplemental Homicide Report data from 1999 – 2012, male murderers used guns two-thirds of the time while female murders used firearms less than half the time. Behind firearms, real world female murderers were most likely to turn to knives, beat their victims to death or hit them with a blunt object.

Feel free to file away this bit of sociological trivia for future cocktail conversation or water cooler analysis of the next episode of Game of Thrones. But let’s also think for a moment about the big methodological question hinted at by this fleeting observation—namely, to what extent does behavior in a simulation or game environment reflect real world behavior? And, more specifically, can simulations or games be used as vehicles—possibly superior vehicles, for gathering market research data?

Alas, the presentations I attended at Games for Change this year were silent on this point. The closest any speaker came was Mary Flanagan, Dartmouth professor and game designer, whose talk, The Case for Evidence-based Design, highlighted the importance of better understanding the real world impact of games. To assert, however, that games can change knowledge, attitudes and behavior, for which there is significant evidence, is not the same as saying that what people do within simulations or games bears a high degree of fidelity to what they do in real life. Given that the G4C Festival is dedicated to the idea of creating beneficial societal change through games, its future research emphasis will likely be on better experimental design in the assessment of game impact. Market researchers may need to lead the charge in expanding our understanding of how games and simulations can be used to better capture and predict real world decision-making and behavior.

For those interested in embarking on this particular journey of discovery, there are some tantalizing breadcrumbs that may help guide you along the way. Here are two to get you started.

First, regardless of the ability of games to capture current real world behavior, some important organizations believe that gameplay can, in some sense, be predictive of future real world behavior. The military is reported to routinely analyze the activity of players within its first-person shooter game, America’s Army, available free on the Army’s website. Designed both to entertain and recruit, the game has the ability to record every shot fired and every movement taken by players. Analysis of this data can be used to deliver targeted, in-game messages to players or, more broadly, assess the future potential of the player to become a soldier.

Second, in a recent article appearing in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking entitled Preference Versus Choice in On-line Dating (2017), researchers examined data from the Australian dating website RSVP. They found that one in three RSVP contacts were made to dating prospects who matched none of seven stated attribute preferences provided by the RSVP member. Roughly two-thirds of contacts were made to dating prospects who matched on no more than one of these seven attributes. Aside from highlighting yet again the potential for stated preference to diverge from actual behavior, this particular example suggests that a “dating game or simulation” might produce more reliable information than a questionnaire on drivers of dating choice.

By chance, the examples highlighted here brush up against the two big ticket issues of human existence: Thanatos and Eros. The discussion needs to brought back down to the more pedestrian, but practical, issues we face in our day-to-day lives in healthcare market research. Can a game or simulation effectively record a physician’s current diagnostic and treatment decision-making? Is future prescribing of a new therapy better assessed through a questionnaire or through a game/simulation? This translation of the potential of games and simulation to routine market research is a worthy quest, but one which will demand new skills and a new mindset on the part of market researchers. This is the topic of my next and final blog post inspired by the 2017 Games for Change Festival.

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