Gamifying Sustainability: Fun and Games in All Seriousness

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As newly appointed climate newbies, we enthusiastically start on our first task: To break the ice and get to know each other. “Do you have a cat at home?” someone says, “cat anybody? No, well then, what is your favorite color?” The game is called Climate Heroes Quest, and in the first stage we embark upon a spell of “Ice Breaker Bingo”. The aim of the game is to find the people that fit the descriptions in the four-by-four box grid and collect four boxes in a row. “Bingo!” someone shouts soon enough.

Gamification; Source: mikelo / flickr

mikelo / flickr

Gamification; Source: mikelo / flickr

We are sitting in the workshop on gamification (within a sustainability context) during the World Resource Forum in Davos, organized by WeAct and South Pole Carbon. Participating are professionals from business, academia and the public sector, all curious to experience this business trend first-hand.

Gamification, the use of game elements in non-game settings, aims to add an element of excitement to everyday activities, in this way encouraging a particular type of behavior. Finding an application within a sustainability context, gamification has been used as a tool to encourage people to recycle, save energy and reduce waste. Companies have jumped on this trend, creating numerous applications to encourage employees or customers to a more sustainable living. NBCUniversal, the media and entertainment enterprise, rewards participants for, among other things, greening their commute through its OneSmallAct online community platform. Recycle Bank aims to use a gamified approach to promote recycling in the US.

Having passed the first stage during the workshop, we are promoted to Climate Regulars. We then get our second challenge: team work. We have 15 minutes to define problem sets that we experience in everyday life relating to sustainability issues. And we have to define the problem, determine the goal, identify a target behavior and pinpoint a set of metrics to go with it.

The clock is set and the seconds start ticking in the background. We sit in teams and start brainstorming – we want to get to work using no fuel, we want to avoid plastic waste in the cafeteria at work, we want to save electricity at home. “10-9-8-7” – the countdown starts and we instantly argue on how to measure the problem: “kWh or cost savings, what is better?” Time up! Ceremoniously rewarding our efforts, we are presented with a glass of chocolate and several points on the score board.

A game is made up of several levels and the participant can work their way from “novice” to “visionary”. Along the way they are rewarded with experience points, levels, leaderboards, progress bars, badges and virtual goods. Players can be rewarded on an individual level and group level.

“Gamification does give insights on how you can change behavior,” says Paula Migliorini, Policy Officer at the European Commission, however, she adds, “you always have to be the winner in this system, this is not what I want to teach my children.”

The gamification trend has not escaped scrutiny and skeptics maintain that it propagates a system of quick rewards and lack of depth into a specific topic. Does it actually work in changing behavior?

Gian Autenrieth, Project Manager for Climate Solutions at South Pole Carbon, says that the approach can lead to higher engagement. He takes a somewhat more critical point of view when it comes to the long term benefits, “the only problem I see is the strawfire-effect: it burns bright and strong but what is the lasting effect of it?”

Prisca Müller, Co-founder of the start-up WeAct, says that it is necessary to repeat the game on a regular basis in order to have a lasting effect. WeAct uses an online game platform as a service for companies that want to change their workers behavior or create awareness for an issue. Typically, when organizing challenges for clients the company launches a game during a three-week period within intervals of three months.

Despite some obvious criticism, there seemed to be a keen interest for the gamification approach at the workshop. Ms Kugler mentions: “We are running a research project applied in different firms concerning business project innovation. We could apply this.” At the European Commision, Ms Migliorini says, “I want to include a session on gamification.” Within a different context, Alexander Iscenco, who is part of the Moldovan Environmental Governance Academy is working on launching a program at three universities in Moldova based on sustainability learning with a gamification approach. He is working on a game featuring a green James Bond, struggling in the fight against waste and working towards the “super agent” recognition.

As we enter the final level of the game, already promoted to climate masters, we are asked to develop a strategy for one of our problem sets. The best strategy is elected: an initiative aiming to promote recycling habits among school children. The winning team again gets a reward. Further, chocolate is given to the person that answered the most questions during the workshop. Even more, we are all jointly rewarded with the title “Climate Hero” and 20 tonnes of offset emissions in a project of our own choosing.
“I found it fun,” says Petra Kugler, Professor at FHS St. Gallen “people are actually starting to work together. It would have been great if we had started to do this from the beginning of the conference.”

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