Green gets its groove back

Gamification gets people to adopt eco-friendly habits by replacing guilt and shame with fun and fame.

Read time 8min 40sec

The tale of one online game serves as a powerful example of how approaching old problems in new ways can bring about significant changes - in a relatively short space of time. The Green Your Home Challenge, a month-long game run by Recyclebank in April last year, was highly successful in getting people to adopt more eco-friendly habits, simply by framing their actions in a gaming environment.

Participants were encouraged to visit the site throughout the month to interact with various rooms in a virtual house, and carry over green actions to their own homes. Quizzes, polls, and interactive tools provided users with simple steps for saving, while prizes and status rewards kept them coming back for more.

An analysis of the game's impacts showed 97% of participants said the challenge increased their knowledge of how to help the environment. The game also upped their sense of commitment, with 58% saying they were very likely to take additional green actions in future as a result of participating in the challenge.

The success of GYHC will come as no surprise to those who have been touting the potential of gamification for years. Various organisations have now begun employing game features like badges and leader-boards to make everyday activities fun and rewarding.

Author and gamification expert Gabe Zichermann says this trend goes beyond simply adding games to sites, software or activities. “What we're really talking about is taking the mechanics and principles that make games so engaging and applying them to real-world problems.

“Take a programme where people receive an incentive the more they recycle, for instance. This is similar to the way in which a gamer in a fantasy role-playing game may earn better items the more monsters they kill, but flipped for a real-world use.”

In GreenBiz's latest State of Green Business report, the authors note that gamification could change the one thing that's always been a sticking point for eco-friendly behaviour - motivation.

“While the "uber-notion of 'saving the planet' may be compelling, many of its constituent activities are easier said than done: recycling, turning off lights, buying greener products, driving less, and the like. That may partly explain why so many of us - both at home and in business - don't engage in greener behaviours, even when we know exactly what to do.”

The report argues that gamification could help change this, relying as it does on positive reinforcement rather than reproach.

Ashok Kamal, CEO of green social media marketing company Bennu, argues that people inherently want to protect the environment - for the sake of themselves, their families, and future generations. “But nobody wants to be browbeaten into changing their behaviour. The carrot incentive works better than the stick punishment.

“People want to be part of a community, so as their peers start to live more sustainably, it creates a powerful social motive to join the crowd. Green gamification is about fortune, fun and fame, not blame and shame,” says Kamal.

Albe Zakes, global VP of media at TerraCycle, which creates new products out of hard-to-recycle materials, says there's a misconception among consumers that being environmentally responsible translates into more expensive products and services, which are less effective.

In addition, says Zakes, people often don't want to make the extra effort to change, preferring the ease and convenience of disposable packaging and wasting without thinking. “Game-based approaches can help overcome these obstacles, because when people start these habits in a game, and enjoy carrying out these actions, those habits can transfer to real life.”

TerraCycle introduced Trash Tycoon as a Facebook game, in September last year, with an up-cycling theme that mirrors TerraCycle's real-life activities. The game depicts how discarded waste can be reworked into valuable items, such as Kraft Cheese bags being made into lunchboxes, park benches, and flower pots, for example.

“When players see the packaging in real life, they start thinking about the potential and impact instead of the inconvenience,” says Zakes. “Plus, it is all about reinforcement, and even - in a way - classic conditioning. If they recycle something hundreds of times in a game, it would feel weird to throw it away in real life.”

Zichermann adds that games' combination of feedback, friends and fun is a powerful driver of behaviour change, providing players with a sense of engagement and helping lead them down a path of mastery.

As Anthony Zolezzi, creative director of environmental site Greenopolis, says: “We are wired for games - the stock market, football, soccer - so if we take this same thought process to doing good, such as recycling and energy conservation, then everyone wins.”

Climbing the pyramid

Bennu's Kamal notes that games tap into innate human needs such as achievement, reciprocity, competition and appreciation.

“These are behavioural drivers positioned toward the top of the pyramid in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When we turn environmental stewardship into a game, we're leveraging principles of behavioural psychology to promote a more sustainable planet.”

Zichermann's influential model for gamification rewards is called SAPS (status, access, power and stuff) and ranks user rewards from the most to least attractive, and the cheapest to most expensive.

Referring to Zichermann's SAPS model, Kamal says the most fulfilling rewards are emotional.

“Extrinsic rewards such as free stuff can be effective short-term motivators; however, status, access and power rewards - which are intrinsic - are superior mechanisms for fostering engagement and loyalty.”

Zolezzi agrees: “All rewards should be short-term and real. But what we have found is that badges and status are much more important than stuff.”

Zakes witnessed this in Trash Tycoon, and explains that what a recycling game lacks in danger and high drama, it makes up for in realism and positive reinforcement. “In games, people are instantly rewarded for 'doing the right thing', we hope that sense of accomplishment and reward will carry over into real life.”

He adds that the community being built within games like Trash Tycoon is similar to the community sentiment and action needed for sustainability to take hold in a broader sense.

Green gamification is about fortune, fun and fame, not blame and shame.

Ashok Kamal, Bennu

“In the game, players can help others clean their neighbourhoods, speed up production in their factory, and decorate their towns with green items. Instilling a sense of community in the game encourages people to think about it outside the game as well.”

Creating a bit of tension can be helpful too. Zichermann says using tactics like leader-boards to track people or families' progress within a campaign can instil a sense of competition, as seen in the Green Your Home Challenge. “Adding easy ways for participants to share their progress via social media tools can also help spread these types of initiatives through a community.”

One such example is Greenopolis' Facebook game, Oceanopolis, where players have to keep their island, surrounding oceans and wildlife clean and healthy, mainly by avoiding giant floating patches of garbage. The game incorporates various social features, so players can invite friends to visit, send gifts, or clean each others' islands to earn extra points. It also extends game behaviour to real life, as in-game recycling kiosks and rewards mimic the real-world Greenopolis recycling programme. Online actions can be converted into offline rewards, and vice versa, in the form of cash donations, discounts, or in-game loot.

Collaborative consumption

The rise of social platforms is also seeing a general shift in the way people consume goods and services, no doubt bolstered by global economic pressures.

Latitude Research and Shareable Magazine's 2010 study found 78% of respondents felt their online interactions have made them more open to the idea of sharing with strangers. More than three in five participants also made the connection between sharing and sustainability, citing 'better for the environment' as one benefit of sharing.

Kamal notes that social media has reinvigorated the collaborative consumption movement, which promotes access over ownership. “People are sharing things rather than frivolously buying.” He points to companies such as vacation rental site Airbnb, car-sharing service Zimride, and lending- borrowing community NeighborGoods, as reducing waste while saving people money - and building community. “And they're thriving businesses, proving that sustainability is profitable.”

This ability to boost profit means a growing number of companies are leveraging sustainability to engage their employees, says Kamal. “Research shows sustainability benefits the bottom-line by increasing productivity, decreasing turnover and enhancing recruitment.”

He adds that Bennu advocates synthesising enterprise gamification and sustainability to create shared value. “For instance, a gamified car-sharing programme is one way that companies can reduce their environmental impact while rewarding employees for taking green actions.”

If they recycle something hundreds of times in a game, it would feel weird to throw it away in real life.

Albe Zakes, TerraCycle

It's an approach that's clearly catching on, with Gartner predicting that by 2015, more than 50% of organisations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.

“Business-to-business software providers big and small - from industry giants to small start-ups - are beginning to take gamification very seriously,” says Zichermann. “I think that a world where office workers find gamified applications and features embedded into their office portals, collaboration software, and BPM suites is not very far away.”

The incoming generation's familiarity with game mechanics also means future decision-makers are likely to be very well versed in video games, says Zichermann, bringing a shift in approach to global challenges. “We're entering a time when the millennial generation - one that grew up with Atari, Nintendo, and Sega Genesis controllers in their hands - is taking over the workforce as their parents begin to retire.

“I, for one, hope this generation takes a more social, community-oriented, and gamified approach toward solving the pressing problems of climate change and other environmental issues.”


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