Excuses, Excuses | Game-Based Behavior Change

The new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll on energy issues, funded by the Joyce Foundation, indicates Americans are skeptical about the impacts of small actions (like turning off lights) and, at the same time, the majority of respondents say it is too difficult to make the changes that they identify as more meaningful, like adding insulation or carpooling.

As the church lady would have said decades ago, “How convenient!”

Essentially, the US public is perfecting a rationale for doing nothing. The excuses remind me of an out-of-shape friend who believes using the stairs over the elevator this one time will not make that much difference while, at the same time, arguing that giving up his daily doughnut habit is too difficult to consider.

And the analogy does not end there. The AP-NORC survey also found that, of the 90% of Americans who believe the government needs to do more to address energy issues, 58% think the focus should be on providing better energy-saving options versus 38% who think the focus needs to be on getting people to make better choices.

My friend is also waiting for a magic pill that will make him healthy and fit without any effort on his part.

The likelihood that he can get fit without effort is about the same as the likelihood that US can eliminate wasted energy without engaging people and their behaviors.

The bottom line is that energy use is not just about technology; it is about the people using the technology. Refrigerators are a good example; the electric usage of a refrigerator today is less than half that of a comparable model in 1978. Unfortunately, a growing number of households have two or more refrigerators and the size of the typical refrigerator sold continues to grow.

Reducing energy usage is about people and the choices they make. People like you and me.

Cool Choices knows that, in reality, little actions matter and they add up, especially across communities. A single action like turning off game consoles when not in use can save $100/year with some models—which adds up to billions across the millions of households with these devices.  We have seen instances where hundreds of households can save more than $100,000 annually via small actions.  And we know that lots of people find other benefits in these small steps toward environmental sustainability—a saner commute to work, more time with family members, etc.

Still we do not expect to persuade people with fact sheets and fancy charts showing how the savings add up. Cool Choices implements behavior change programs that use gamification techniques to leverage social norms because we know that while humans like to use rational arguments to explain their actions, much of what humans do is influenced by their social setting—often to a greater extent than any of us realize. (Translation: In general, peer pressure is as real at 45 as it was at 15 except we are better at rationalizing our behaviors at 45.)

Social norms matter. When your friends start doing more to save energy then it becomes uncomfortable to be the one who is still wasting energy. You’ll want to keep-up. When people you like and respect rave about how fun and easy it was to change their habits, you think about your own habits. And when Cool Choices throws game mechanics into the mix—giving you kudos for the good stuff you do and creating a way for you to benchmark your achievements against your peers—well, then you might reconsider things you once thought were too hard to do.

It is the concept behind numerous fitness initiatives and it is the premise of our employee engagement game: creating a fun, social, and easy way to measure and celebrate progress makes difficult tasks less difficult and creates community around what was once solitary activities. We believe it will move people beyond the excuses to action and that, cumulatively, those actions will matter.


It’s About Playing the Game, Not the Prizes

Since Cool Choices gives corporate employees opportunities to win by being more sustainable, we are always interested in other workplace gamification efforts. A recent piece about games as part of wellness programs caught our attention. The article showcased several models and talked about how organizers used prizes to generate interest and participation.

In the end, though, it wasn’t the money that drew the workers in. It was the online camaraderie, and the challenge. “People wanted to be on the winning team,” says Julie McGovern, Chilton’s vice president of administration and HR.

That is worth repeating: participation wasn’t about cash prizes. People wanted a challenge and the camaraderie of facing that challenge together. Likely some of them wanted the pleasure of prevailing over their peers while others may have simply enjoyed being part of a team. The lure of prizes may have drawn a few people into the program initially but, once in, folks are motivated by the game, not the prizes.

We see this in our interactions with employees. People are excited to be part of a bigger effort to do the right thing and they appreciate the ways a game can facilitate recognition of their individual efforts. Simple tools like leaderboards and player highlights are very motivating.

This is important news for the leaders who worry that games will require big-ticket prizes. It turns out that playing the game—getting credit for one’s own accomplishments and having an opportunity to cheer on others—is a reward in itself.

And it is not the only reward. In wellness games, employees get healthier and in sustainability games like ours people report both positive lifestyle changes as well as dollar savings. And in all of these games, there is an increase in levels of team work, which provides a whole other realm of corporate benefits.

Indeed, when you pause to do the math you realize that the corporate and individual benefits of employee engagement games add up almost as quickly as the environmental benefits.


Playing Games Works

Cool Choices was privileged to help facilitate a session demonstrating the efficacy of game mechanics at this year’s Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) Conference. That meant we organized a fun and silly session of charades and got to talk a bit about the power of games.

For me, though, the most powerful thing was watching others play charades. Earlier in the evening, I had serious doubts about our plan. I walked into the hotel conference room, scanned the crowd of professionals networking in small groups and thought, “uh, oh, this is never going to work.”

Our plan, you see, was to put the group into teams and then get them to act out charades for each other. The charade topics would get increasingly silly (shifting from standard charade topics like “Fiddler on the Roof” to more animated topics like “sumo wrestlers”) to illustrate the way that games engage and pull you along.

As I looked around the room though, I had doubts. Could we really get these professionals to pretend to be members of a rock band or a cheerleading squad? Would they be willing to play if play compromised their dignity? The point of the event was to illustrate the power of games but, really, could games be this powerful?

Happily, I did not have a lot of time to express these doubts or to change our plan. As I stood in the back of the room fretting that our plan would not work, others put the plan into motion.

As I stood on stage watching the previously dignified group disappear, people’s playful sides emerged. I was soon watching groups of conference attendees flap their arms like chickens, march in an imaginary parade and, yes, wrestle sumo-style. Some teams argued with referees over point values, instant alliances were born on other teams and laughter—laughter pervaded the room.

In the end my hardest task was to get the groups to stop playing. Their response was a powerful reminder of the potential of games.


Nobody Wants to Be Left Out

Author and journalist Chris Benjamin shared some thoughts about the power of community in a recent blog that bear repeating here:

Almost nobody wants to be The Guy who hurts the community – the One Person who won’t sort the recycling or take out the compost, or show up when the church has a broken banister.  Once sustainable behavior becomes normalized people don’t want to be left out.

In just two sentences Chris creates a powerful vision of exactly the changes we’re aiming to create, here, at Cool Choices. Like Chris, we know that normalizing sustainability makes it compelling. Our aim in our corporate partnerships is to make environmental sustainability so fun, so visible, and so easy that it becomes the norm, the way everyone does things and—as a result —the path that the community identifies as business as usual.

Chris goes on to talk about what it means to promote sustainability at the community level, noting:

Marshaling communities, even semi-communities, to commit to positive environmental change helps the world in two ways: 1) It makes the small positive change and, 2) (more importantly) it builds better, more unified communities who have stepped onto the sustainability continuum together.

As we enter the last month of our pilot at Miron, I see evidence of both kinds of change. Individual participants are seeing financial and non-financial savings in their own lives that translate to a growing portfolio of aggregated environmental benefits. More, as people reflect on what they have done and talk about what else they might do (even after the game ends), we are seeing a collaborative vibe around sustainability that seems broader and deeper than before the pilot. We’ll know more, of course, after the post-pilot evaluations are complete but at this point I’m feeling pretty bullish about the power of workplace communities to normalize sustainability and then rally around that achievement.


Gamification: A How To

Sustainability is hard to define and understanding what it might mean is complicated, often lonely, and not always fun. It is no wonder that many sustainability programs fail to inspire widespread changes. It is tedious to conduct an energy audit. It is hard to sort through nontoxic cleaning items.  And very few people ever want to talk insulation. The Cool Choices way is different. We make sustainability easy, popular and fun.

Cool Choices is conducting a live pilot of an online sustainability game with employees at Miron Construction. So far, it is working. Seventy-five percent of the company signed up to play and more than half have taken at least one action to increase efficiency and conserve resources.

The magic in our game is the social rewards for real-life actions. When you play our game, you earn credit at work by sharing the sustainable choices made within your household. You make progress when you turn off the light and earn even more points when you make a video about it. The points you tally demonstrate your progress. And you work with teammates to create a path to success.  You are recognized for being smart enough to spend less money and live more comfortably. And you earn some fabulous prizes in the process.

Mironites have taken to it. Construction industry professionals from Neenah to Cedar Rapids are eagerly sending in smiling pictures of themselves screwing in light bulbs. They are submitting videos where they talk about the romance of sustainability—turning off the TV might mean catching a sunset with your sweetie after all. They are writing stories about an added sense of relaxation by simply slowing down on the freeway. People’s lives are changing and the game is a part of the equation.

So how does it work? I do not really know, completely. But that will not stop me from offering a few kernels on what it took to succeed to date:

  • Understand your players. Our pilots have been designed with players. They have asked for an experience and we deliver.
  • Serve your players. Our goal is to leave no question unanswered and no dispute unresolved. And no frowns. Ever.
  • Embrace imperfection. Absolute purity is not our goal. Progress is our goal. So we do not expect everyone to become sustainability junkies immediately. And we do not expect our games to be mind-blowing every time – just most of the time.
  • Become a contortionist. You have to anticipate and react to situations with grace, flexibility, and imagination.
  • Looks matter. Great creative buys you time and helps establish credibility.
  • Substance matters too. Our goal is to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions. We are pretty serious about it.



Want People Seriously Engaged in Sustainability? Make It a Game.

The following was originally posted on Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series.

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

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.

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 take making sustainability fun very seriously.


It Is Not About Sacrifice, It’s About Living More

As a veteran of almost two decades of energy efficiency efforts, I’ve had hundreds of people start conversations with me by saying “You know, I tried [insert efficiency product or practice here] and…”

Over time I learned to brace myself, to force a fixed smile as I listened—because as often as not, what followed the “and” was negative.

“And I didn’t see any savings.”

“And my wife hated the way the light looked.”

“And it didn’t work as well as our old model.”

“And the contractor left a huge mess.”

Now I’m watching Cool Choices’ first corporate partnership unfold and once again I’m listening to stories. Participants in the pilot are encouraged to share stories, photos or videos about what they are doing and how it’s going.

Some participants tell us that because they are watching less TV, they are spending more time outside, spending more time interacting with other family members, going for walks, and reading more.

Others tell us that avoiding jackrabbit starts and stops while driving was a challenge at first but now they find driving more relaxing. They arrive at their destination on time and feeling better about the other people on the road.

Multiple participants tell us about how they’ve involved their children, saying that Cool Choices has prompted broader and deeper conversations about sustainability.

The stories make clear that lots of participants are very proud (and justifiably so) about how they are taking control of their energy usage.

Up front we talked to these people about the financial benefits they could see via the game but now it’s clear that they are seeing benefits beyond the financial. Participants are experiencing:

  • Mental health benefits associated with more social interactions, less road rage and feelings of greater control of their own lives.
  • Physical health benefits associated with more opportunities for exercise, more time outside and less stress This is, I think, the magic pixie dust that’s needed to make change happen.

When people feel (yes, feel—in their guts) that being more sustainable actually improves the quality of their life, then we’re on the right track. Suddenly the benefits outweigh the hassles and sustainability isn’t about doing less—it’s about living more.

I can’t wait to read next week’s stories.


Believing in People

Do we believe we have the will to do what’s necessary to slow global warming?

The latest Yale University survey suggests that Americans are increasingly doubtful about our collective will. The percentage of Americans who assert that it’s possible to slow warming “but people aren’t willing to change their behavior so we aren’t going to” has risen four percentage points while those who believe “it’s unclear at this point whether we will do what’s needed” dropped six points. Other categories—including those who deny there’s any warming and who are sure humans will fix everything—stayed relatively constant.

I read those results as a drop in confidence in each other.

The lack of confidence is striking because Cool Choices is in the midst of a pilot at Miron Construction that gives me great cause for optimism. At Miron, more than half of the company’s employees are regularly taking actions to reduce their emissions, having fun and becoming part of the solution.

As I watch what’s happening at Miron a couple of things are clear to me.

First, people want to do the right things—to save money (which enables them to have funds for other priorities), to preserve local resources (so that their kids and grandkids have access to those same resources), and to lead by example.

Second, knowing you are doing the right things feels good. The employees at Miron are sharing their successes with us and their colleagues because they are proud, because these are successes.

And, finally, doing the right things can be contagious. One successful change can lead to another and your successes can prompt a co-worker to make a change as well. The process is slow and far from linear, but ultimately the hundreds of small successes (and people who are glowing with pride at what they’ve accomplished) are how we can build whole communities that are part of the solution.

The climate challenges ahead of us are enormous, but I’m not ready to give up on humans just yet.


To Be Social It Has to Be Fun

Jayme Heimbuch at published a piece a few weeks ago about the failure of energy conservation to engage people via social networking, suggesting that perhaps people were the problem (because we seem to care more about celebrities than kilowatt hours).

Three weeks into a pilot where people are sending us photos, bragging to us and their colleagues about the electric savings they’ve uncovered, I’ve a different take on all of this.

Most existing energy conservation efforts haven’t engaged people in social media around their sites because the efforts are not any fun. Most of the tools function more like a test than a game, requiring you to gather and interpret all kinds of data before you can do anything the least bit fun. It would be akin to Trivial Pursuit requiring players to complete a comprehensive assessment to optimize team assignments. Imagine how much fun that would be.

Actually it would be about as much fun as filling out screen after screen of questions about your electric usage and insulation levels—stuff regular people don’t think about.

Disclosure: I’m an absolute energy geek. At my house the utility bill is something we open and discuss, as soon as it arrives. And then we input the data into customized spreadsheets, marvel at the graphs and talk about it some more.

But most people are not like me. Whereas I enjoy filling out carbon calculators and comparing the results from one tool to another, most regular people (our target market) find this a burden. And most people have enough burdens already.

Game developers have taught me that if you want to engage people you need to provide opportunities for early successes, to let players feel good about their efforts. It has to be fun.

Asking people questions they can’t answer about their appliances or energy usage makes them feel bad, incompetent even. It is not fun. While a few might dig in to learn more, most will drop out, opting to spend their time on something more pleasant. And we wonder why these folks aren’t posting their results on Facebook? What should they post?

Just learned I don’t know how to read my utility bill – even though I’ve been paying it for years.  It’s probably also time to admit that I can’t reset the clock on the microwave.

Our initiative, by contrast, empowers people. Participants can take easy actions, without having to learn how kWh converts to tons of CO2.  We give participants clear signals—points—to value their actions. In our experience people immediately grasp this approach, seeking out high point-value actions that fit into their lives.

We’re finding that a few people want to get into the details. We support and celebrate those efforts but that’s not the main event. The main event is regular people taking action and bragging to their colleagues about the points they’ve accumulated.

By making this fun and easy we have engaged participants who intend to continue taking actions that, in aggregate, will generate meaningful savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long run.

And isn’t that the real objective?


Workplace Communities vs Neighborhoods

I’ve been involved—as an observer, a participant or a catalyst—in a variety of community-based energy efficiency programs over the last two decades. All of those efforts aimed to leverage a geographic or political community identity (neighborhoods, towns, etc.) to encourage individuals to implement energy efficient products or conservation practices in their own homes. Utilities and local governments target geo-political communities because it’s operationally handy—the communities align with utility territories or local government jurisdictions. So it’s easy to know who’s in and who’s out.

Community efforts, though, are most effective in a community with:

  • a lot of informal interaction (so successes with one member can influence other members);
  • strong established communication networks that reach all community members; and
  • clear and compelling leadership to champion the effort.

Given those criteria, I’d argue that the ideal communities are corporate, not geo-political.

Think about your town or neighborhood vs. your workplace community.

  • Whereas I wave at a neighbor while pulling into my garage, I chat daily with my co-workers and know more about their lives.
  • While my city council person tries to reach me via snail mail and community forums that I rarely attend, everyone in my company has my email address and can interact with me at regularly scheduled meetings that I’m paid to attend.
  • And while I might disagree with both at times, my CEO’s commitment to an issue is usually more straightforward than my mayor’s, often because the hierarchy is clearer.

Hence Cool Choices’ current focus on corporate communities. Our approach is to partner with companies that are already leaders in corporate sustainability efforts. We work with these companies to facilitate a cultural transformation where employees embrace sustainability in their personal lives, just as their employer has embraced it on the business side. We believe workplace efforts that promote personal sustainability are a big win for both the corporation and the employees.

For example, these efforts:

  • Broaden and deepen employee engagement in corporate sustainability efforts, reinvigorating corporate efforts;
  • Provide employees with the tools and opportunities to save money in their personal lives;
  • Make sustainability a fun community effort; and
  • Enable corporations to differentiate themselves in terms of candidate recruitment, community relations and other arenas.

Ultimately I think these efforts will affect neighborhoods and whole towns. But that might well happen via one employer at a time.