Can games help us to live more sustainable lives?

14 October 2014

Sustainability is not always fun and games. But could turning sustainability into a game be an effective way to create behavioural change? We chat with Josephine Rawstorne about the Gamification of Sustainability.

Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to engage people in changing their behaviour. Think FarmVille, but used to communicate sustainability principles to achieve real business, social and environmental results.   

We interview Josephine Rawstorne, a recent intern at SBN who has just submitted her MBA research paper on Gamifying Sustainability.

Why gaming and sustainability?

Gaming is a growing industry, because games are a powerful way to educate and engage people.  At the same time, existing sustainable and environmental messaging is growing stagnant. To better engage people, the communication around sustainability needs to change and gaming is a new way of doing that.

How can games effect positive change?

Games seem open to exploring sustainable messaging. There is an opportunity for business to harness the collective power of gamers to do good, and help solve ‘real world’ problems.

But aren’t games just for kids?

The perception of the games industry is changing only recently has the industry been taken seriously. Games are not just an industry for kids, they are a part of people lives.  The Entertainment Software Association 2014 report states that 31 years old is the average age of today’s gamer.

Why do people want to play games?

People play games for entertainment and to escape reality. Escapism is a big part of gaming, but game designers and the people who play them are becoming aware that some of the themes in gaming backdrops (war, poverty, climate change and hunger) are a reality for some. Both the gamers and the game designers have an opportunity here to try and solve those problems whilst still being entertaining.

How can gaming solve some of the tricky problems facing the world?

There have been a few game publishers over the years that have developed games which deal with environmental disasters and stuff like that, but they don’t seem to get very far because it’s a hard sell – it’s not what people want to be entertained with.

People won’t play games if they are not fun, therefore to create awareness around sustainability the theme of the game needs to be integrated into the story line and it still needs to be fun! This is possible with simulation-type games where the player sets up little civilisations.

How can games be used as a learning tool?

Games are an effective engagement tool when you tell a good story. Due to the complexity of the interactive system, the game allows a client to teach a message in a far more powerful way because the player becomes totally absorbed.

What are some good examples of ‘world-changing’ games?

Some games have been designed to solve real world problems.

Evoke is a crash course in changing the world. It’s a social networking game designed by the World Bank, which helps to empower people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems.

World without Oil is an online alternate reality game which uses the ‘collective imagination’ to confront a real world issue: the risks that our unbridled thirst for oil pose to our economy, climate and quality of life. The game allows players to play out the events that could arise from the increasing scarcity of petroleum.

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where gamers play as someone living with depression. Participants are given a series of everyday life events, and have to attempt to manage their illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment.

What else did you learn in your research?

I created a survey with the aim of understanding people’s motivation to play games, and what it would take for them to consider paying for a ‘real world’ game which was designed to effect positive change. Essentially this means a game that is played to have positive outcomes on communities and the environment. 

  • 77% of respondents said they would play a ‘real world’ game designed to effect positive change.
  • 35% of respondents said they would be willing to pay for this kind of game by donation.
  • When respondents were asked what they would expect in return for paying for a ‘real world’ game designed to effect positive change the three most important things were:
    • Having a fun experience where they could make a difference
    • Being entertained by the game
    • Seeing the positive impacts of their actions.

Can the gaming industry lead us to live more sustainable lives?

The gaming industry is one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world. The video game industry is projected to grow from $67 billion in 2013 to $82 billion by 2017.The industry has been criticised for causing violent behaviour in players, but as Stephen Knightly from Ingame says: “on one hand, you say that playing a video game can cause people to go out and want to harm someone but, on the other hand, you wouldn’t expect that it could have a positive effect and make them to want to go out and do good.”

I think that games are a really useful tool for creating behavioural change: by using ongoing challenges and competition, game designers can harness the power of the collective. Conversely, gamers are engaged in local issues and campaigns through playing the game.

Why do you think gamifying sustainability is important?

I think that gamifying sustainability should be studied, examined and tested further, as it has the potential to shift the perceptions of sustainability. No longer do we need to focus on the negative human induced destruction of our planet when communicating around sustainability: instead we can use fun and games to encourage individuals, schools, government and businesses to effect positive change and engage consumers in more sustainable practices.

Josephine has been a superstar intern at SBN for the past six months. Fluent in French and proficient in Spanish, she thrived in the creative, dynamic environment at SBN, forming working relationships easily at all levels. Her key strengths are in account management, operations and research. She has seven years’ experience in online advertising and managing client/agency relationships. She has just completed an MBA in Sustainable Performance, where her research project focused on ‘Gamifying Sustainability’.

Josephine is looking for business development roles in New Zealand’s sustainability sector. If you have an employment opportunity that would suit her, get in touch.