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Playing games can make us happier, more creative, more resilient and better able to lead. So what change can they drive for a sustainable world? Sophie Curtis investigates.
What if saving the world was as fun as creating a warrior troll as your avatar? You'd embark on quests with various monsters to defeat, like in the online multiplayer computer game World of Warcraft... And imagine if the energy and effort that goes into creating such games, and playing them, could be channelled to win a better future for the real world?
According to game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal, the average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 – roughly equivalent to the amount of time they spend in secondary school. With half a billion people around the world playing games today, this presents an extraordinary opportunity for environmentalists.
The thing games offer, that real life challenges don't necessarily, is frequent feedback on your progress. As you play you can earn points, gain powers, move up a level (cue congratulatory jingle), compare your progress with other players – and you can even brag about it without sounding worthy. All of these 'game mechanics' keep the player engaged, often winning out over other demands on their time and attention ("Hang on a minute, I just need to get past this orc…").
In recent years, an industry has built up around the idea that game mechanics can be used to make day-to-day tasks more fun and engaging – a concept known as 'gamification'. The buzzword may be relatively new, but organisations have been deploying these techniques for some time. Retailers that offer loyalty cards, fitness programmes that provide badges for achievement and companies that award bonuses for hitting targets all use elements of gaming to motivate participants. Some claim that Scientology, with its use of challenges, levels and rewards along the path to spiritual enlightenment, has even gamified religion.
However, it's only since internet access became ubiquitous that gamification has yielded some truly groundbreaking results. One of the most spectacular success stories in gamification is an application called Foldit, which allows players to create new shapes of proteins by folding digital molecules on their computer screens. There are lots of citizen science projects, drawing on the spare time of the masses to increase research capacity – but in 2011, Foldit offered players points for producing a model of an AIDS-causing monkey virus. The more accurate the model, the more points they won. This challenge had puzzled scientists for more than a decade, but it took the online community just ten days to crack.
By engaging enough people with the right talents, researchers have moved a step closer to a solution for HIV and AIDS," said Brian Burke, analyst at technology research firm Gartner.
Foldit has proved that the power of online games should not be underestimated. Within a few decades, the people ruling the world will be "digital natives" – those that are using the Net like we use water or air – making them more receptive to game mechanics than any previous generation.
By applying the principles of gaming in new ways, and making imaginative use of the technology available, gamification could be an invaluable tool in the quest for a greener world.
Giving worthiness wings
One thing games can do is take some of the intangible or delayed benefits of more sustainable lifestyle choices, and translate them into instant rewards. Some rewards might be material; others might be purely 'social', or as simple as a personal best. The key is that they're achieved via a game process.
We all know that we should be travelling less, recycling more, using less energy, and so on. But sometimes these things seem like more hassle than they're worth. Walking to work instead of taking the car may shave some grams off your carbon footprint, and save you some cash – but it's not like you'll be awarded winged heels to take you there at supersonic speed. Then again, what if you were…? Ultimately, the sort of reward a game offers may mean very little to our bank balance or the wellbeing of the world, but may yet have more power to push us onto the more sustainable path.
Games make us happier, more creative, resilient and better able to lead
Some may shirk the idea that the rather vacuous glory of doing well at a game is more motivating than a proven benefit to our community or environment. But proponents of gamification argue that that there are also intrinsic benefits to playing games. As McGonigal claims in her book 'Reality is Broken', games – with their instant rewards and the challenge of an epic win – actually make us "happier, more creative, more resilient, and better able to lead others in world-changing efforts". Essential qualities for an eco-warrior! The practical implication is that a game which gets you to cut your car commuting will actually improve your wellbeing, in addition to the physical benefits of a swift stroll down the street.
However, if what we really want is to get people thinking more sustainably in the long term, observes Rosalyn Foreman, Data Services Manager at the Energy Saving Trust, then games also need to help people understand the reasons for environmental action. Otherwise, a counter-movement of high-carbon, anti-social games could be just as effective… "It's [also] important that the rewards don't undermine the actions by creating more carbon emissions or using more energy," Foreman adds – by prompting players to trade in their points for high-impact consumer boons. "This relates to the rebound effect, whereby people may install insulation, for example, and then go and book a flight with the money they will save."
Traditional approaches are often preachy and hectoring. Gently nudging through games can be much more effective
The educational power of 'fun and games' has been tried and tested over generations – but for Paula Owen, an energy consultant and creator of the card game, Eco Action Trumps, "it has yet to be harnessed as a very effective tool to educate and create behaviour change. Whether the games are digital or more 'retro' board or card games, people seem to relate to them strongly", she says. "Traditional approaches to behaviour change have often been preachy in tone and hectoring in manner, turning swathes of the population off. Gently nudging people through games with environmental messages built in seems much more effective for a wider audience."
So how can games strike the right balance between social progress and play? Some are making a science of their appeal. Richard Bartle – who's best known for creating the first multiplayer real-time virtual world – describes four types of player: achievers (who play to win), explorers (who like to discover and create), socialisers (who enjoy interaction), and killers (who thrive on conflict). A successful game has to have qualities that appeal to all four types of player, Bartle argues – because the most attractive thing about any game is the presence of opponents.
One company already using game mechanics to drive sustainable behaviour is Recyclebank. The company awards points to individuals when they make greener choices, like recycling or walking to work. Crucially, users can then check their scores online to see where they rank on a score board. When they have collected enough points, they are rewarded with discounts and deals from local and national retailers and service providers.
Meanwhile, the web-based motivation tool Practically Green is combining game mechanics with the personalised feedback offered by social media. The basic idea is that members earn points through actions like using a non-toxic paint (75 points) or reducing their computer's power consumption (50 points), which shape their personal profile. To keep members engaged, the site encourages them to track their progress in a public arena, post status updates ('Fabian is switching to organic turkey burgers'), and compare their profile with that of friends and others.
A window on what friends, neighbours and colleagues are doing is an extremely effective source of motivation, argues the founder and CEO of Practically Green, Susan Hunt Stevens. People are more likely to change when their social norms change, she claims – a conclusion other specialists in behavioural patterns have also reached. For Burke, too, the combination of social media and games seems a winner. "Social media is an amplifier of gamification", he explains. "It offers people bragging rights when they have achieved something."
Even traditional industries, like car manufacture, are cottoning on to the potential of gamification. After all, it's not such a great step from the dash board. Now, in addition to speed dials and mile counters, the Nissan Leaf monitors speed and fuel efficiency. Achievements are represented by tree symbols on a digital display behind the steering wheel, making driving more efficiently seem like a game. Users can even compete with other drivers online – meaning that, for a change, the winner in a road race will have a lighter foot on the gas.
Green gamification is already more than just a consumer-facing movement. Businesses have begun to spot the potential of game mechanics to engage staff – driving changes in the workplace and taking internal management to a whole new level. Gartner predicts that, by 2015, as much as half of all business processes will be gamified.
These applications could be particularly useful for companies facing the prospect of carbon taxes. Although software systems can automatically control heating and lighting in buildings, there is a limit to the effectiveness of these measures. The next step is to tackle the behaviour of employees.
"People often think they're quite green, but it's not until you give them a baseline that they start to appreciate that they could actually change their behaviour," explains Peter Grant, Chief Executive of CloudApps, a provider of sustainability reporting software. It now offers a mobile application called SuMo (for 'Sustainability Momentum'), developed in collaboration with Global Action Plan, which uses challenges to engage employees with corporate visions and goals.
Players are prompted to opt for video conferencing instead of travel, or to recycle ink cartridges, or switch computers off in the evening. Gamers move up through various levels and gain badges for their virtual trophy cabinet. They can also compare their progress with that of colleagues and see where they rank on a leaderboard. Organisations can choose how to reward employees that hit their targets – for example, they might offer a bonus, an extra day off, or name them employee of the month.
Grant said that, for a 20,000-strong company that spends £35 million a year on travel and expenses, an improvement of just 10-20% can make a huge difference to its bank balance, as well as its carbon footprint.
The next level
These savings could just be the start. If gamification can help shape a workforce into carbon-cutting warriors, then what might the potential be for creating and implementing shared visions across whole sectors, and even cities? Applications will only become more advanced in years to come, with the rise of 3D imaging, augmented reality (in which day-to-day vision is overlaid with information), and ever more powerful social media platforms.
The key to effecting serious change, according to Grant, is to engage people while they're young. After all, we're raising a generation of 'digital natives': can we bring them up as a force for change, too? CloudApps is already working on an adapted version of SuMo to be used in primary schools throughout the UK.
"There are 2.6 million children going through those schools at the moment. You could create a schools national challenge with the government," he says, tackling anything from carbon emissions to support for the elderly.
Perhaps games could even drive a new era of political engagement and active citizenship. Are we in for Democracy 2.0? Councils could effectively crowd-source blueprints for sustainable cities, using SimCity-style games where players compete to design the most energy-efficient models. A 'World of Water' game could simulate local resource levels and challenge gamers to keep drought or famine at bay. Towns, cities and utilities might even start challenging each other to become more sustainable, with entire countries conceivably competing against one another…
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the people looking to gamify civic engagement aren't councils, but independent entrepreneurs. Toby Beresford is founder of Leaderboarded, an online tool which groups can use to create their own dynamic scoreboard. In his blog, he describes an online game which would allow each community group to build a virtual reality representing its own situation – its demographics, natural resources, urban facilities and so on – and to give it a name and branding. The community could then name its goal (a safer neighbourhood, a healthier population, more jobs) and begin its quest...
Gamification? Isn't that just the absence of good design?
One question begs. If we can design the real world in a way that brings out the intrinsic rewards of sustainability – by making it quicker and cheaper to take public transport than the car, for instance, or installing intelligent lighting and heating systems that pick up on your presence and your needs – then surely the big neon carrot of games will be redundant? As Hugh Knowles, a specialist in sustainable innovation at Forum for the Future, succinctly puts it: "Gamification? Isn't that just the absence of good design?"
Perhaps. But unfortunately, we're not there yet. It is still more convenient to throw out all the rubbish in one go rather than recycle; video conferencing is still not comparable to face-to-face meetings; and driving to work is often faster and cheaper than taking public transport. Could green living become the world's most played game? Who's in?
Sophie Curtis is Deputy Editor of TechWorld.
Photos: brand X pictures/thinkstock