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 …
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:
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.
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.
Jayme Heimbuch at Treehugger.com 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?