Q&A: Researchers talk game attitudes

Anderson Analytics explains the methodology and implications behind its recent study that branded viewers of the Xbox as distrusting, power motivated.

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Ferocious debate over the perceived effects that video games have on players--from violence and sexual material to racial stereotypes--has waged for years. In the United States, the gory arcade classic Mortal Kombat brought the furor to the forefront in the 1990s, while the Grand Theft Auto series has relit the gleam in the eyes of aspiring politicians eager to regulate the game industry.

A Stamford, Connecticut-based group of researchers wanted to take a slightly different look at the media-effects phenomenon: how two major consolemakers' branding and marketing of their systems has influenced the opinions of everyday, college-age adults. When shown simple images of Microsoft's original Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2 consoles, how would they react? Would there be a noticeable difference?

There are, Anderson Analytics announced last week, detectable differences between those who viewed the PlayStation and those who viewed the Xbox. Researchers used "text-mining software" to find the differences between the two brands--what the group said is an effective metric of the "subconscious effects of the brand logo or advertising." "Boys who saw Xbox pictures were higher on power motivation than boys who saw PlayStation images," said the group, adding that Xbox images also increased levels of distrust and self-confidence, which the PlayStation images didn't do.

Gaming was only half the picture. The study's 500 participants were divided into two groups: women looked at competing images of doll brands Barbie and Bratz, while "male-skewed" consoles were shown to men only.

GameSpot recently spoke with three researchers at Anderson Analytics who worked on the study--managing partner Tom Anderson, senior consultant and developer Jesse Chen, and consultant Anna Song--about how they conducted the survey, why people were distrustful of Microsoft's debut console, and why the group decided to leave Nintendo out of the equation altogether.

GameSpot: What can you tell me about the study's participants--how many were there, what were their ages, and how were they chosen?

Jesse Chen: This was an online survey. We had 500 completes in the survey. Respondents were US college students in our GenX2Z.com panel, ages 18 to 26, but the majority were age 18 to 21.

GS: How did you come to choose the two test products--dolls and game consoles? Is each seen as a predominantly gender-inclusive brand--dolls for girls, game systems for boys?

Tom Anderson: First, I need to preface this with that the intended audience of the white paper--which will be out soon--really isn't limited to game manufacturers. The implications go beyond gaming to brand management [and] advertising decisions for any brand or product that isn't a pure commodity. We were conducting research on research testing a new methodology, AA-Projective, among the college-age demographic, one area of expertise for us. Thus we needed products to test that had both wide awareness and appeal.

The specific brand and product choices were made because there has been much talk recently in the media about Barbie and Bratz and their popularity even among older women. Regardless of whether college women currently play with dolls or not, they have all been exposed to both brands and therefore have opinions about them both on the conscious and subconscious level.

We also needed a product to test that tends to be more male skewed and naturally thought of gaming consoles. That said, we are gamers ourselves and have worked on game-usability studies in the past, so we do enjoy working with this category.

GS: What exactly is a person's "baseline subconscious state"?

Anna Song: This is our read of a person's psychological state prior to introducing stimulus, in this case the different brands or products. This baseline is what the person is most normally like, had they not been stimulated by different brand ads. We understand that it's impossible for a person to be a blank slate; everyone comes in being stimulated by some thing. This is why we randomly assign people into different groups and focus on averages of the groups. Therefore, what we are really talking about here is the collective/aggregate baseline between the group that saw Xbox compared to the group who saw PlayStation, both before seeing it and after.

GS: What types of initial control images did you show beforehand, and why were they chosen?

AS: We used Anderson Analytics cartoon characters, because we have tested these several times with college students before and know what kind of responses they elicit. They are pretty neutral and ambiguous; people's responses are based on their natural interpretations of the image.

GS: Exactly what sorts of images did you show to the group of people who looked at the media of the Xbox and PlayStation?

JC: We showed half of the participants a simple Xbox image and the other a simple PS2 image. Just the consoles on white background. We asked them to rate the products. Then, we showed them a third image--a very vague, rough, ambiguous image of what looks like two people playing video games in front of a TV--and we asked them to tell us what they thought was going on in the picture. Their responses to the third image were then compared to the other group--Xbox or PS2--and also compared to their own written words before they were shown the gaming-console images. What we could detect was the choice of words difference and the tone of voice different between the groups and between themselves before and after brand exposure.

GS: Were any distinctions made between the different Xbox brands--that is, the original black Xbox and the newer, sleeker silver Xbox 360? What about the original gray PlayStation and the newer, black PlayStation 2?

JC: We tested the traditional black-and-green Xbox and black PS2. We wanted to make sure [the brands] had high awareness.

GS: How much does a person's previous perception of the Xbox or PlayStation brand play a part in the study? Does it influence it all?

TA: Definitely, this is exactly what we were testing. Both Microsoft and Sony have spent considerable time creating an image around their systems. Considerable thought has been given to everything from console design, packaging, logo, advertisements, et cetera. Some of this was influenced by marketing-research surveys or focus groups.

But in the final analysis, it is hard to position your brand emotionally. Most of us can't even express how we feel about our loved ones or our country, never mind the brands we buy. Yet do we really prefer Coke or Pepsi only because of the taste and/or price? Obviously there is more to it; this is why millions of dollars are spent on advertising trying to get us to connect with both of these brands on some other deeper emotional level.

GS: What sorts of questions are respondents asked to write about?

TA: Our methodology aims to measure some of these subconscious emotional perceptions we have around brands. We wanted to isolate, as much as possible, the effect brands have on individuals. Therefore, we tried to equalize the effect of previous exposure to Xbox and PlayStation by randomly assigning participants into the Xbox or PlayStation groups. The logic here is that the probability that all the PlayStation, or Xbox, aficionados would be randomly placed in the same group is incredibly small. Therefore, the two groups are approximately equal going into the study. The only difference between the two groups is that one group sees an Xbox image and the other views a PlayStation ad.

GS: How do you effectively judge a person's effectiveness through a written essay?

AS: We use tools like word stems, sentence completion, and, in this case, picture-story exercises, or PSEs. Respondents are asked to tell us what is going on in a picture--what have the characters just done, what are they doing now, what will they do next, what are they thinking or saying. Sometimes, such as in this case, we ask a PSE up front to get a baseline reading. Then we introduce stimulus later on, a logo or ad, and then conduct another PSE exercise. We can then compare PSE's prepost exposure as well as between various products.

Since we have separate random sample groups evaluating different brands and products, the differences between individual writing styles cancel each other out. We use software which incorporates proven linguistic and psychological analysis to get at the deeper meanings behind what people say. Basically, this allows us to put hundreds of people on a psychologist's couch at once.

GS: How does the text-mining software, mentioned in your report, analyze the essays?

JC: It looks at word choice, as well as symbolic meanings. This reveals a lot about a person--stress, insecurity, et cetera. The software we use is capable of extracting and understanding complex terms. It uses a well-researched semantic network to code open-ended responses. Of course, our software can do traditional linguistic and text analysis, as well. Software has come a long way since the days of basic word count. We now consider syntax and a host of other linguistic considerations, as well. But yes, the psychological component is most unique. While it has been used in psychology, and even for employment screening for sensitive positions in government, et cetera, I do not know of anyone else who is using such software for market-research purposes.

GS: Why do you think boys were more distrustful to images of the Xbox?

JC: Microsoft Xbox is the new player in this field. PlayStation has been around for a while and proven themselves. Obviously, there is also the large company image, which carries over from the parent company. So these two things obviously play a role. However, advertising, experience with the product, and everything else that helps us form an opinion about something also play a role.

GS: What does "distrust" mean with regard to your study? Does it translate into consumers--if they are distrustful--not buying future products under that brand?

TA: That may be part of it, but not necessarily the whole story. It's really distrust and cynicism. In the case of Bratz-Barbie, it is both negative and positive. While there is the trust in Mattel's Barbie brand, the more cynical Bratz doll may actually serve to attract some women and girls who identify more with this than the traditional Barbie roll of women.

AS: It's better to think about the psychological idea as a general misgiving about the world. People who score high on distrust question the motives of others and are very skeptical about information presented to them.

TA: Distrust is generally a bad thing, that a company would want to avoid. We do not buy something if we distrust the company.

JC: Part of the methodology is based on academic research that has been conducted on the psychological states of public figures--politicians, CEOs, et cetera. There are certain word combinations and speech patterns that have been classified as exhibiting a level of distrust toward the audience. For example, a politician's public speech that exhibit[s] a certain level of distrust means that he is not all that trusting of his audience or constituent[s] and is probably just pandering to them. In commercial-marketing research, distrust should be interpreted as cynicism toward the products offered.

GS: In your report, you suggest that marketers need to pay attention to these results. Is it effective for companies to market to these age groups, even though they don't earn a significant amount of disposable income themselves?

JC: Yes, they might not earn a significant level of income themselves. But most of their income is disposable. People who earn more and are in a different life stage might have even less disposable income--that is, newly weds or people who just have their first kid.

TA: Oh yes, they do command a significant amount of disposable income. And also have considerable influence on how their parents spend money, so they have influence on all sorts of product purchases, even groceries, electronics, and cars.

GS: Did you consider testing people's responses to Nintendo consoles, or to handheld devices such as the Game Boy, Nintendo DS, or PlayStation Portable?

JC: Since we are using a fairly new technique to perform the study, and in order to get a more effective and direct analysis, we've decided to pick two directly competing products. We think that with the current market share of Nintendo, we had to go with an Xbox-PS2 heads-up. Of course, I personally hope that Nintendo Wii would do well in the future and would offer us more interesting scenarios.

TA: We could do this in a more focused follow-up among gamers. But at this time, we wanted to keep it simple and only measure what we were most interested in.

GS: What were the reasons for ultimately leaving them out?

TA: As I mentioned, simply general awareness and market share, and study costs.

GS: Have you speculated as to why people see differences in the PlayStation versus the Xbox?

JC: Many people have speculated how people perceived Xbox and PS2 in the past. In our study, we solely dealt with the branding issue. And so our findings suggest that consumers' psychological responses to these two products have a lot to do with the product design and the associated companies behind the product. That is, how they perceive Microsoft and Sony carr[ies] over to how they perceive the gaming consoles.

GS: Based on your conclusions in this study, are there any follow-up leads for new studies?

JC: This study was about branding rather than about the gaming industry specifically. We'd like to do a follow-up study just about the gaming industry specifically sometime in the future.

TA: [We] would love to delve deeper into the differences we saw and try to get at the root causes and how they can be changed, et cetera. That is, what is driving the distrust, how does it effect purchasing, and what can companies do to change how they are perceived.

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