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 GreenBiz.com

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 

 

One comment

  • This article is an example of why people do not engage with the sustainability process or ‘buy-in’ to climate change. It treats adults as children and the whole process as a game to make them understand.

    Running the marathon is not an understanding of climate change but a growing awareness by people that they need to be fitter. That is a health message easily and clearly made and understood.

    The climate change ‘argument’ could have been simplified at a very early stage by basing it around energy efficiency, which hits people in the pocket and is tangible and they can actually do something about their personal efforts.

    The trouble is that the Government, whichever one, got late to the party as regarding energy efficiency and doesn’t actually do what it tries to impose on others, as witnessed by EU comments two days ago.

    Instead it ‘hand wrings’ about future energy generation policy without actually having one and does nothing at all about reducing consumption at source. Reduce consumption to get a realistic idea of what future generating needs are and then fund Renewables, but not just wind turbines!

    Dismissing opposing views on climate change is not a way to endear yourselves to the British public and neither is treating them like Plebs or Swivel-eyed Loons.

    Face the fact that the UK doesn’t produce anywhere near the effects on the environment that the BRIC’s do and you start to realise the hard sell. We see a situation where we are reducing our 2% at great cost to the public in general but not changing the overall position.

    It doesn’t help, by the way, that DECC issues figures every quarter that show that UK mean temperatures hasn’t changed greatly since 1970.

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