Playing for the Planet: Gamification as a Tool for Environmental Engagement
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2023 was recently recorded as the hottest year to date. We witnessed relentless floods, extreme temperature fluctuations, widespread wildfires, an increase in marine ecosystem imbalance, and food shortages linked to erratic weather patterns all across the globe.1 It was a clear warning that we need to take significant action to address climate change. While traditional methods of raising awareness and engaging communities have made a significant impact, there is an increasing need for more active participation in environmental action. This is where gamification can play a role (no pun intended!).
What is gamification?
According to gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou,3 this design approach combines elements from games and applies them to real-world activities centered around human motivation – such as using regulations and rewards to encourage behaviors. Think of when fitness apps give out points for accumulating daily activities or when learning apps award badges for going through a certain amount of lessons. However, there is still a lot of untapped potential for using this approach to create a positive social impact. After all, gamification could transform environmental action from a necessary duty into an interactive experience.2
It’s important to note that using game elements to motivate users involves more than just leaderboards or score systems. Such approaches alone can lead to superficial engagement, where users tend to focus more on earning points rather than truly immersing themselves into the purpose behind what they’re doing. Gamification, when done right, leverages a player’s innate desire for learning, mastery, competition, socialization, sense of meaning, feeling of ownership, means of self-expression, and more.2,3,11 A user-centered approach,3 where the journey pivots around a shared intention, encompasses a much more engaging experience — an experience that leverages their intrinsic motivation towards eco-friendly behaviors.
The rise of gamification in the context of ecological sustainability
Gamification has become increasingly popular in various sectors, including education, health, and even in the workplace,2 due to its ability to engage and motivate audiences. In ecological sustainability, organizations and developers are now utilizing “play” to promote sustainability education, reduce energy consumption, improve transportation, enhance air quality, manage waste, and conserve water.2,4,5,6
With growing interest and research in the gamification field, different mediums like board games, electronic games, and mobile applications have been studied to better understand how they can promote environmental behaviors. Here are just a few examples of how.
One example is the expansion pack of Catan, a popular board game where players build settlements, cities, and roads to develop their territory. The expansion pack called “Oil Springs” asks players to choose between limiting oil usage for the common good or risking ruin for victory. A study found that playing this version of the game increased eco-friendly attitudes and behaviors by allowing players to experience real sustainability issues.7
Keep Cool is another board game where gamification has showcased its environmental effectiveness. In this game, players represent groups of countries that must choose between growth strategies while adapting to climate impacts. The game's objective is to efficiently balance climate protection with lobby interests to win. Another study found that playing Keep Cool can increase players' sense of responsibility for sustainability and belief in the importance of cooperation to address climate change.8
Electronic games and mobile applications
Gamification techniques have also been used to teach children about air quality. In a study conducted by Fernandes et al. in 2023, researchers designed an augmented reality-based game (a type of video game that uses technology to blend the digital world with the real world), enabling children to learn about air quality by interacting with sensors. The game displayed visual representations of the pollutants measured by the sensor device, which made it easier for children to comprehend. The children were then encouraged to expose real-life objects to the sensor device to observe for any cause and effect. The game was not only enjoyable for children, but also effective in teaching them about the causes and solutions for indoor air pollution.10
The platform Deedster takes a different approach to promoting everyday sustainable behaviors. It not only provides users with information on eco-friendly choices but also enables them to take real life action.9 Users can participate in a leaderboard by completing micro-tasks called "deeds". Deeds are small eco-friendly behaviors like thoroughly cleaning your shoes instead of buying a new pair, reading a book instead of watching a movie on an online streaming platform, or upcycling your furniture.
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Leveling Up: How gamification can directly inspire eco-friendly behaviors
One of the key challenges in achieving sustainability is convincing people that they can create and drive change – despite the emotional burden and impending doom that many environmental issues incite. Game designs that allow users to take on roles of different characters can allow players to better grasp the various perspectives and challenges involved in making a difference. For example, by playing the role of a decision-maker (such as policymakers and global leaders) in Catan or Keep Cool, users can gain insight into the relevance of these roles within the bigger picture of the systems they exist within.
Another approach to exemplifying real life impact is to make the environments of these roles more interactive through augmented reality (AR). By stimulating users through meaningful exchanges within the game, AR can elicit causal knowledge and allow for easier linkage between theory and practice. As demonstrated in a previous study,10 AR offers a significant means of encouraging individuals to participate in real-world conservation efforts.
In addition to role-playing games and AR, mobile apps that encourage eco-behaviors, regardless of their scale, are a good opportunity to create change. Community-based challenges where people form groups and work together to achieve sustainability goals contribute to needed collective action, and the process of competing through play can enhance motivation and sustain participation in these challenges.
From Players to People: Considerations when applying gamification
When designing games or game-like experiences to help accomplish goals, it's important to remember that users are real people – each with their unique personality, background, and experiences. With this in mind, it is crucial to take into account potential ethical implications and pitfalls in gamification. For instance, while AR can compensate for some gaps in traditional learning, the use of AR in an educational context also has its drawbacks.10 Accessibility is one of them as AR involves the use of devices and tools that may incur costs that are not readily available for everyone. Moreover, if not designed appropriately for its target audience, individuals may suffer from information overload.
Another consideration is striking a balance between making the experience engaging enough for continued usage without it becoming addictive. We want people to play, but we don’t want playing itself to be the goal. Oversimplification is also something to take into account. While we hope to make environmental issues easier to understand to get more people involved, we don’t want to trivialize these challenges. Moreover, if players become too addicted, there's a risk that they won't apply the environmental lessons learned in the game to real-life actions. Ironically, excessive gaming could lead to an increased carbon footprint, countering the very environmental changes the game aims to inspire.
One way to keep yourself in check when exploring the use of gamification is by approaching gamification as a toolkit— that is, taking what is useful and leaving what is not. For instance, if you want to encourage reducing energy consumption or promote recycling, incorporating game mechanics like challenges and rewards can be tailored to encourage such eco-friendly actions. If the objective is to create a connection and engage users to build a stronger commitment to sustainability, another approach is integrating storytelling and role-playing games to simulate real-world environmental scenarios so that individuals get to experience and understand the long-term impacts of their actions.
A new gameplay towards an eco-friendly future
In our efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainability, it seems valuable for organizations, governments, and NGOs to consider the use of gamification in their campaigns and environmental work. This means using game-like elements to encourage more communities and groups to get involved in protecting the planet.
The use of game design to get more people interested and motivated to take part in making a positive change has shown its potential. When looking beyond games themselves, there exists an additional step: reframing the daunting task of addressing a global crisis and viewing it as a collective adventure. Imagine a world where sustainable practices are not just recommended, but are part of an engaging story where everyone's actions contribute to a larger, collective environmental quest. Wouldn't you want to be a part of that?
- Ramirez, R. (2023, December 6). 2023 will officially be the hottest year on record, scientists report. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/12/06/climate/2023-hottest-year-climate/index.html
- Shahzad, M. F., Xu, S., Rehman, O. U., & Javed, I. (2023). Impact of gamification on green consumption behavior integrating technological awareness, motivation, enjoyment and virtual CSR. Scientific Reports, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-48835-6
- Chou, Y. (2022, January 4). The Octalysis Framework for Gamification & Behavioral Design. Medium. https://medium.com/@yukaichou/the-octalysis-framework-for-gamification-behavioral-design-fe381150f0c1
- Douglas, B. D., & Bräuer, M. (2021). Gamification to prevent climate change: a review of games and apps for sustainability. Current Opinion in Psychology, 42, 89–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.04.008
- Di Paolo, R., & Pizziol, V. (2023). Gamification and sustainable water use: the case of the BLUTUBE Educational program. Simulation & Gaming, 104687812311816. https://doi.org/10.1177/10468781231181652
- Designing Gamification for Sustainable Employee Behavior: Insights on Employee Motivations, Design Features and Gamification Elements. (2022). In J. Krath, B. Morschheuser, & H. F. O. Von Korflesch (Eds.), Proceedings of the 55th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
- Chappin, E., Bijvoet, X., & Oei, A. (2017). Teaching sustainability to a broad audience through an entertainment game – The effect of Catan: Oil Springs. Journal of Cleaner Production, 156, 556–568. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.04.069
- Meya, J. N., & Eisenack, K. (2018). Effectiveness of gaming for communicating and teaching climate change. Climatic Change, 149(3–4), 319–333. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2254-7
- Deedster. (2023, November 24). Climate Action | Sustainable Businesses -Deedster. https://deedster.com/
- Fernandes, J. F., Brandão, T., Almeida, S. M., & Santana, P. (2023). An Educational Game to Teach Children about Air Quality Using Augmented Reality and Tangible Interaction with Sensors. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(5), 3814. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20053814
- Adham, M. (2022). Gamification and MDA framework in game design. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/360256009_Gamification_and_MDA_Framework_in_Game_Design
About the Author
Sarah is a Senior Research Analyst at The Decision Lab. She is also currently taking up her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, focusing her research on mental health interventions for commercial content moderators. Prior to joining TDL, Sarah worked for a behavioral design company based in Manila, where she managed the local implementation of the We Think Digital Campaign of Meta - providing accessible learning modules and resources for responsible and empowered use of technology across the Philippines.