How gamification can influence environmental behaviour
Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Playing digital games is fun and highly engaging. So how about using it to stimulate behaviour change, such as energy efficiency, bus trips or more ethical consumer choices and practices?

When you fill in a LinkedIn profile you are told how long you have to go to finish filling in their profile, which motivates you to finish it to 100 per cent.

According to the experts, that’s using gamification techniques to keep us engaged. Now the same thinking is being used in new apps under development that aim to foster more ethical and environmentally friendly behaviour. Key elements in these apps are competition, such as pitting your eco-performance against your friends, or tracking your own consumption patterns over time.

According to academic researcher  Elena Bakhanova who is doing a PHD on the intersection between gamification and sustainable development, games use competition, rewards, and points for good actions to stimulate interest.

Feedback systems also mean that actions can be punished, says  Bakhanova, who is based at the University of Technology Sydney Persuasive Systems for Wise Adaptive Living (PERSWADE).

Using gamification for good

One gamified app in development is Green Wallet, which according to the website will “help you buy green, get your footprint closer to zero, and stop global warming.”

Bakhanova says the app will likely combine a combination of gamification techniques, such as progress tracking and competition so you’ll see how your friends are doing.

It will also likely suggest more environmentally-conscious options for people to do or buy as they move through their day, which is an effective technique informed by behavioural science.

“So you are helping people to make the right choices.”

There’s a similar ACT-based app in development called The Neighbourhood Effect that uses behavioural science to make it “convenient, financially rewarding, fun and social for Australian households and businesses to reduce their environmental impact.”

We’re past peak gamification interest but there’s still way more potential

Bakhanova says gamification applied to this context is still an emerging field but “serious games” that are designed for something other than entertainment ­are already very well-established.

For example, there’s “classics” like the 30-year-old FishBanks, which despite its age is still used in universities, and has been used by the United Nations in the past. Developed by MIT in the US, the game is based on a scientific modelling where several countries have access to the same oceans that are populated with a limited supply of fish.

“The interesting thing about this game is we all know the problem of common resources and we need to negotiate.

“But people still underestimate the complexity of the system, they underestimate the need to balance the private interests with the common benefits.”

As many as 80 per cent fail the game despite knowing the problem of shared resources. This makes the game valuable as learning tools to understand complexity in systems.

Gamification hit its peak around five years ago. But Bakhanova says there hasn’t been much research into its evaluation and impact.

“So we don’t know how effective they are.”

Proponents say it’s about more than scores and leader boards.

“This is where behavioural science is coming in.

“If you understand it a bit better you will actually influence behaviours and it will be more than just a nice looking chart, it will nudge you to do something.”

There are also big gamification opportunities in augmented reality and virtual reality technologies to educate people about environmental issues and bring in an emotional, immersive element.

Gamification can have high impact

Bakhanova says gamification has “high potential” to influence the way people behave, which is key to changing environmental impact.

“It’s about balancing the economic, social and environmental factors. Many sustainable development problems are about finding a consensus.”

And it’s handy in our technology dominated busy lives.

Day by day it’s harder to capture the attention of people, especially when talking about something unpleasant like climate change, Bakhanova says.

It’s already been shown to work with energy consumption, including an app developed in Brisbane that uses competitive game playing to learn how to save energy in the home.

Another example is awarding public transport passengers with cash or other prize for adjusting their behaviour and riding the train or bus at off-peak hours, or getting off at stations that aren’t as busy.

In Brisbane, a program called Healthy Active School Travel encouraged families to cycle or walk to school where possible using leaderboards. Children that topped these charts received low cost prizes such as stickers.

The game was credited with converting 35 per cent of single-family car trips into active transport in participating Brisbane schools.

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