Three things we can learn from video games

This is a guest post by Olly Lawder of sustainability communications agency Futerra.

Nothing is more engaging, distracting, entertaining or compulsive than video games. Don’t believe me? Then you either haven’t played them or you simply haven’t found the right one yet. And, if you’re one of those people who thinks that video games (and the people that play them) are stupid, then this post might change your mind, because video games could hold the answer to engaging millions in sustainability issues.

This is not the raving of a pale, bleary-eyed gamer with juvenile arthritis in his thumbs. Instead, it represents an increasingly self-evident opportunity that begins to explain why the video games industry is now bigger than the recorded music industry. Individual titles, targeted at both men and women, are grossing over $1 billion each.

Millions of people play games for millions of hours.  What have game designers discovered that is so engaging that it can cause people to neglect their health and damage their social lives?

Using gamification to drive engagement and behaviour change
Unlike most behaviour insights, the driving force for developing video games has been business, not academia. As marketers and the academic world begin to pick apart what makes games great, we are starting to see how we can bend this force to deliver sustainable behaviour change. The term ‘gamification’ covers the application of game design insights in new areas to drive engagement and behaviour change.

Let’s consider a few of those insights:

1)     Competition and collaboration
Games engage, not because people are stupid, but because they provide an outlet for our innate desire to both compete and belong. Video games in particular have mastered the development of mechanics such as leaderboards, points and co-operative play, which satisfies these innate drivers in clear and compelling ways.

Nissan gamified its electric car, the LEAF . Owners can compete globally on efficient driving skills while collaborating to grow a virtual forest representing the total emissions displaced by their choice of vehicle. This is a great example of how gamification can provide both the status needs and social proof for for pro-environmental behaviour change.

2)     Rewards and challenge
Free stuff has long been a useful tool for marketers to incentivise behaviour, but video games have revealed how bluntly traditional approaches have used rewards and incentives. Thanks to ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing games’ (MMORPGs), game designers have access to data sets of literally billions of choice and decision making moments. As a result, the reason good games are hard to put down is their use of sophisticated reward schedules that make the gameplay challenges feel neither too easy nor too hard, compelling the gamer to play on and achieve more. This is one of the most important insights for those trying to engage on sustainability: humans are turned on by things that are ‘achievably difficult’.

3)     Control and autonomy
Environmental messaging has had a tendency to focus on massive, distant and catastrophic events that can shock and scare. The more of these messages an individual receives the more likely they are to feel disempowered, resigned and consequently apathetic. Video games give a fantastic experience of control and autonomy around problem solving. Almost all games give you the autonomy to make decisions to overcome a challenge. Combined with visible, graspable and emotional feedback, they give the player the sense that they are the masters of their own fate (and that of their avatars).

Gamifying the Green Deal
Imagine if we applied these principles to promoting, say, smart meter use in the UK .  We could add a game layer to energy efficiency in the home, hook smart meters up to an online platform and have neighbours, friends and families collaborating and competing with each other. Gamification could be used to bring the environmental costs and benefits to life in tangible and meaningful ways. Most importantly, perhaps, we could give people a sense of control about sustainability while maintaining interest and raising the ambition of their choices. Homeowners could, for example, ‘level up’ their houses by exploiting the opportunities presented by the Green Deal for insulation and microgeneration.

I’d like to finish with a recent quote from George Monbiot: “The world’s most inventive minds are deployed not to improve the lot of humankind but to devise ever more effective means of stimulation”.

Let’s use the insights of some of those brilliant inventive minds and turn them to our cause.


  • This raises some really interesting points. I wonder how many examples there are where the values of sustainability have successfully been incorporated in to a ‘game’ environment? My instinct is that there is an inherent contradiction in values; that fantasy violence and destruction is a key component of many games (it would be interesting to know what proportion) and offers an ‘escape’ from real-life responsibility.

    It’s absolutely true, and a great shame, that many of the best minds on the planet are generally occupied with things that have no long-term value to anyone, eg persuading us to switch to a new brand of baked beans!

  • Agree with Olly about the possibilities; Joe the trick maybe to use the game as a proxy for doing something “good” rather than simply making a “green game” . For example you get more points for your game by travelling on the bus etc

  • Pingback: Learning behaviour-change strategies from video games | Sustainability Ramblings

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