Cool Choices staff are long-time presenters and participants at the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference. This event brings together an eclectic group of researchers, practitioners and advocates focused on environmentally sustainable behaviors. We were excited to represent our approach to game-based behavior change at the conference this year.
The 2015 BECC conference provided some terrific insights. For example, a recurring theme at BECC is the power of local. This year several presenters shared research showing that people are more responsive to messages with a local slant—it turns out that a locally-recognizable skyline in a Facebook post will increase clicks.
At Cool Choices we’re acutely aware that local is relevant and that it motivates—it’s why we implement our game and engagement platform within specific communities (within a business, across a city, or as part of an energy efficiency program). The Cool Choices game builds upon on our players’ sense of community, showing them that others in their community are adopting sustainable practices and that, cumulatively, those practices add up to significant impacts. So, just how do we “show” local actions and values in terms of sustainability within an online game environment?
Changing behaviors is hard, so for practitioners like us, the annual BECC conference is also an opportunity to trade strategies—to share what’s working, to commiserate about the challenges, and to remember that we’re not alone in this quest. Being part of a community of people who are promoting sustainable practices is powerful. Just as the Cool Choices sustainability game shows that people’s small actions add up, BECC reminds us that our efforts are part of a growing international movement to address climate change. Being part of a community feels good.
In addition to attending conference sessions; Cool Choices led a post-conference workshop on using games as a behavior change strategy, “Want Change? Make it a Game!”, shared our efforts to grow our game into a movement in a conference session, and a presented a poster on how games allow colleagues to coach one another on sustainability.
According to a recent study, most of us are not—the lack of hierarchy makes it awkward for us to nudge a colleague when they are not following protocols.
This is a big deal. We know people are deeply influenced by the behaviors of others and this study tells us that it’s typically uncomfortable to influence peer behaviors. That means there’s enormous opportunity for unsustainable practices to spread across our organizations.
Envision a scenario where Joe leaves equipment running even though the office policy is to shut off equipment at the end of the day. Bill is unlikely to correct Joe because, well Bill’s not Joe’s boss so, really, it’s none of his business. And besides, Joe brings in home-made muffins sometimes and Bill likes muffins. So the equipment stays on, which ultimately affects Amy and Mike’s behaviors too; they see that others leave the equipment on so they do the same. The office policy is largely irrelevant in the face of increasingly pervasive social norms.
Cool Choices game shakes up this dynamic. Games give people permission to coach other players (especially team mates). Within the context of a game Bill will likely tell Joe to shut off the printer—because leaving it on is killing their team standing. And, instead of withholding muffins, Joe will probably laugh at Mike’s team spirit but he’ll also turn off the equipment. And the interaction might prompt Joe to coach Amy “hey, you’d better shut off the copier; Mike’s determined that we’re winning this game.”
We see this all the time. Playing a game gives people permission to coach, to talk to colleagues about their practices. And, because the conversations are within a game setting, the interactions feel appropriate to all parties. Ultimately Cool Choices inspires people to talk to each other—directly—about sustainable practices within their community. And those conversations lead to amazing results.
Cool Choices’ success is built on the simple idea that sustainability is driven by communities; that people who share a common goal to reduce waste and help the environment will work together to achieve great things. Our friends at West Liberty Foods have together already made 700 Cool Choices this week–the first week of their Cool Choices game. Participation across the facility has already surpassed previous employee engagement programs by 50%!
Troy and Liza (pictured below) started things off making a few Cool crafts together to invite co-workers across their three facilities to play. This, friends, is what community looks like.
In 2013 Wisconsin Green & Healthy Schools (GHS) and Cool Choices partnered to create a Cool Choices-GHS game – and more than 30 Wisconsin schools began using the online sustainability game in early 2014! The game—which is free to GHS participating schools—provides a fun, social and easy path to reduced resource usage, improved health and wellness, and increased environmental literacy in Wisconsin’s PK-12 public and private schools.
Cool Choices customized its game platform for GHS, which is a partnership between the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education. The Cool Choices game will help participating schools engage their students, faculty and staff, while providing a streamlined approach to tracking sustainable actions in schools.
Cool Choices is delighted to support this innovative statewide effort that includes schools from urban to rural Wisconsin. Ultimately the program could reach all 3,000+ Wisconsin PK-12 schools.
How much do people save just by changing their behavior? Do savings persist after the game?
Whenever we talk about our employee engagement efforts people ask about outcomes. That’s great! Cool Choices believes changing practices helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions – so we have a responsibility to prove it.
The Energy Center of Wisconsin recently evaluated Cool Choices’ work at Miron Construction showing our approach is effective. In the study Center staff analyzed player utility bills before, during and after the Miron game. Then Center staff compared actual changes in usage to actions players reported in the game. Finally, the Center conducted interviews with a sample of players to understand differences between actual savings and reported savings. In those interviews, conducted more than a year after the end of the game, the Center also explored whether participants continued sustainable practices adopted during the game.
What were the results?
The Energy Center of Wisconsin:
Really great results – but we’re getting even better!
The Energy Center of Wisconsin’s analysis also helped Cool Choices by increasing the accuracy of our savings estimates and clarifying players’ sustainable practices (e.g. we learned that some of the refrigerators players unplugged in the game were not full-size). We have adjusted our estimates to allow for a refrigerator mix including smaller units, and are incorporating other recommended improvements to make things even better.
To learn more about the Center’s findings click for the full report (pdf).
“I convinced my family to carpool.”
“I got my dad to start recycling.”
Cool Choices is in the midst of an amazing partnership with some marvelous teachers at Waunakee High School. The teachers—along with students on their green team—are leading an effort to change commuting habits at the high school. And, along the way, they are also changing practices in households throughout the community.
The effort began last year when two WHS teachers applied for a small grant Cool Choices offered through the Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program (KEEP). The teachers used the grant to implement a multi-year effort to analyze and affect commuting habits at their school. When classes started in September they launched a competition where students and staff get points for reporting how they got to school each day, with extra points for the greener options. Organized into teams based on school clubs, students can win prizes throughout the 9-week competition.
Students and staff can also get ‘extra credit’ points for other environmentally sustainable actions like using re-usable lunch containers, doing a sustainable project in the community or by convincing their family members to be more sustainable.
We’re finding the student efforts at home to be quite inspiring. Almost 300 students and staff are participating in the competition (in a school population of 1,200) and thus far about 1 in 5 players have reported at least one effort to increase their family’s sustainable practices. Required to share details about their efforts, participants tell us …
These stories demonstrate that students are really engaged and that they are doing a good job engaging their parents and siblings. This shared engagement is critical; it is easier for us to maintain habits when those habits are shared. More, just talking about one opportunity can lead to other opportunities.
The Waunakee project demonstrates the power of young people as the spokespeople for sustainability. A fun competition is inspiring teenagers to advocate for shorter showers, to convince their parents and siblings to adopt greener practices.
We are excited to watch these young people emerge as sustainability advocates in their homes and in their community. From our vantage point, the future looks just a little bit brighter when we look toward Waunakee these days.
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.
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.
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.
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: