Want People Seriously Engaged in Sustainability? Make It a Game

Can games really make the world a better place?  Is it possible to “play” our way to a more sustainable future?

Games are definitely part of the solution.

At Cool Choices we take games very seriously. We’ve seen how games can make sustainability fun, popular and easy.

…employees earn points when they do specific sustainable actions associated with household energy and water usage, transportation, indoor environmental quality, waste management and food.

In May Cool Choices launched a real-world game for employees at a Wisconsin-based commercial construction firm, Miron Construction.  Of Miron’s 330 staff, 240 signed up to play and more than 70% of those employees are still playing three months later.  In the game employees earn points when they do specific sustainable actions associated with household energy and water usage, transportation, indoor environmental quality, waste management and food.  Employees compete individually and on teams for prizes and status.

So what kinds of things are they doing?  As part of the game participants…

  • Monitor their electric usage, taking steps to reduce phantom loads and eliminate inefficient appliances
  • Slow down on the highway and practice eco-driving trips every time they get behind the wheel
  • Pursue opportunities to carpool
  • Turn off their televisions and game consoles to spend more time reading, interacting with other family members and playing outside
  • Install rain barrels and develop innovative ways to re-use water
  • Engage their families in discussions about how their household might be more environmentally sustainable

More, these same participants are sharing stories and photos with us about their efforts.  They brag about the energy hogs they’ve found and unplugged and they show us how they’re using the game cards as prompts at home and in their cars.  They say they are curious to find out what opportunities they can tackle next.  And they share how the game is changing their lives.  Yes, there’s lots of talk about dollar savings but some employees are also telling us that their quality of life is improving—they find eco-driving to be less stressful than their old driving habits, they spend more time with their family now that they’ve turned off the television, and the game itself is an opportunity for the family to bond.  Watch this video to hear directly from the participants http://youtu.be/xvWNj430OYc

While we’re still in a pilot stage, we are already accumulating lessons learned:

  • Points resonate. Our game refers to “points”, not kwh or btus or pounds of carbon, in part because everybody understands points.  We share cumulative savings results with players periodically (in terms of dollars and environmental benefits) but we find that point values motivate action better than incremental savings information.  Earning 25 points is more compelling than saving $2/month.
  • Games engage. Games are, by nature, social.  Playing generates conversation at work and beyond work.  Players tell us that the game cards facilitate family involvement.  Our cards are colorful and lean on text; participants report that their kids “own” the cards and help decide which cards the family will play next.
  • Competition is compelling. A commercial construction firm, Miron thrives on competition.  Our weekly leaderboards and team standings give players opportunities to trash talk with other teams, to nudge team members who are lagging behind and to show off their own successes.  For a company like Miron that’s committed to a triple bottom line, it’s terrific to have employees razzing each other about sustainable practices at the water cooler.
  • Having fun trumps reams of data. The game format helps control our (well-intentioned) urge to provide too much information.  While we have on-line opportunities for participants to learn more about the actions they are taking, players are not required to study up on a topic in order to earn points.  If you want to know exactly how much electricity that old refrigerator is using our tools will help you calculate the usage; if you simply want to unplug it and collect your points, well that is fine too.  Our aim is to make everyone feel good about the changes they are making so that they keep playing, not to create hundreds of subject-matter experts.

Gamification provides a fun framework for facilitating vitally important environmental actions.  The game gives us a way to celebrate each individual accomplishment and to create a nudge for additional actions.

Games can make the world a better place.  That’s why we taking making sustainability fun so seriously.
Kathy Kuntz is the executive director at Cool Choices and has almost two decades of experience promoting energy efficiency to businesses, communities and individuals; she was previously responsible for leading Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program.   Kathy can be reached at  kkuntz@coolchoicesnetwork.org