HomeBehaviour changeHow making a game of climate change could help save the planet

How making a game of climate change could help save the planet

ecoa action S and LThis guest post is by energy and climate change consultant Paula Owen. It first appeared on

Behaviour change interventions have so far had surprisingly limited success in motivating wider society into taking positive environmental action. Despite constant bombardment of messages regarding ice caps melting, sea levels rising, polar bears drowning, exceptional droughts, and 100-year storm occurrences becoming more frequent, a majority of the population still do nothing more than put the recycling out once a week and buy fair trade bananas from their local supermarket.

One theory is that the issue is too disparate, difficult to pinpoint and, despite the efforts of hundreds of the world’s best climate scientists, the causes are still considered, in some quarters at least, uncertain. In addition, the potential effects of a warming world are too distant in both space and time to galvanise immediate action by individuals. If this is the case, then there has to be another route to persuade people to become less resource-intensive and carbon footprint heavy.

Enter gamification. Although still a new relatively concept, it has been adopted by some forward thinkers in the sustainability space and tested through a range of applications. ‘Eco-gamification’ is showing early promise in sustainable transport, employee engagement, energy and recycling, and there is clear potential for developing gamified processes, products and ways of working that will benefit employees, business and the bottom line more generally.

Gamification could engage people turned off  by ‘saving the planet’
We live in an era where embracing sustainability is accepted as a cost effective route to opening up new markets and customers and to gaining stakeholder trust. Sustainability has become a core pillar for non-financial metrics reporting in the corporate world. The discussion has now moved on to the challenge of transforming the way employees, customers and shareholders engage with the concept over the long term.

The notion of harnessing the power of the collective through ongoing, multi-levelled challenges and competition is potentially very exciting for proponents and practitioners of environmental sustainability and behaviour change programmes, many of whom crave new ways to reach out to a wider audience than the ‘usual suspects’ of green-minded individuals. At the community level, gamification could provide an alternative approach to engaging local people who historically may have been turned off by the overtly ‘save the planet’ messaging that green advocates and evangelists tend to espouse.

At the business level, gamification provides a novel way of taking such schemes out of the ‘green champion’/ ‘environmental rep’ silo that some initiatives have had a tendency to fall into over recent years. A competition-based approach has the potential to enthuse a much broader spectrum of workers to take part. It appeals to the innate, competitive instincts of humans and potentially can provide powerful motivations to kick-start programmes of long-term organisational behavioural change, with multiple levels of engagement and complexity. So, let’s take a look at how gamification can provide a new route into encouraging people to change their habits.

People see they can make a greater impact as part of a group
We already have suggested that one reason more people do not take up the challenge of mitigating climate change is that it can appear that individual action is ineffectual and a bit of a waste of time in the face of the scale of the problem. “Why bother trying to cut down on my household’s electricity bill when China is building a new coal-powered station every five days?” is an oft-quoted excuse. One obvious pathway out of this inaction is to show people that they can make an impact – maybe not individually, but as part of a work team, community group, virtual crowd, neighbourhood, nation, whatever. This is where the power of games comes into its own.

Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world talks about the idea of an ‘engagement economy’, creating a group or community where nothing may have been there before, to come together to achieve something concrete, whether it be a goal to reach, a challenge to overcome or a quantity of tasks to achieve. She argues that the way to do this is to give the group a challenge, turn it into a competition and give regular feedback on how the individual, as well as the ‘engaged group’ as a whole, is doing.

Gamification can turn mundane tasks into an adventure
This is the essence of what gamification does. It can turn a relatively mundane task into an adventure. It gives people the purpose and the challenge they need to get motivated and involved; regular feedback gives them information and encouragement on what their impact is and how much progress they are making (and if they aren’t, encouragement to help make them ‘up their egame’); it shows them how they are doing in comparison with others and that there is the possibility of success, however huge the challenge.

As they say, “It ain’t rocket science”, and we’re not revealing anything you didn’t instinctively know already, but the neat encapsulation of these elements in a gamified process gives it novelty and power.

Giving people the sense that they are not in it alone is important. That their individual effort, albeit tiny in isolation, when seen in context with the efforts of many other like-minded souls, does actually make a significant impact is enough to dissipate the inertia and helplessness of the individual and turn them into a competitive eco-warrior.

If the challenge is set at the right level, anything’s possible
Yes, the challenge of mitigating climate change is still of epic proportions and, yes, the individual’s contribution to the solution is still tiny in isolation, but large, audacious challenges are taken every single day by regular, everyday people the world over. You only have to see the rise in the popularity of marathon running, even among seemingly ordinary folk who never had run for the bus before, to realize that if the challenge, motivation, feedback and competition is set at the right level, anything is possible.

Hence, we postulate, it’s worth giving the ideas and techniques of gamification a go in the sustainability space. Basically, what have we got to lose?

This article is extracted from the book How gamification can help your business engage in sustainability (Dō Sustainability, February 2013) by Paula Owen 


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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