Dr Paula Owen
June 2013

Can fun & games help save the planet?

Behaviour change interventions have so far had surprisingly limited success in motivating wider society into taking positive environmental actions. Despite constant bombardment of messages regarding melting ice caps, drowning polar bears and exceptional droughts, a significant majority of the population still do little more than put the recycling out and buy Fairtrade bananas from their local supermarket.

One theory is that climate change is too disparate, difficult to pinpoint and, despite the efforts of hundreds of the world's best climate scientists, the causes are still considered in some quarters, uncertain. In addition, the potential effects of a warming world are too distant in both space and time to galvanise immediate action by individuals. If this is the case, then there has to be another route to persuade people to become less resource-intensive and carbon-footprint-heavy.

Enter gamification, the concept of taking the best aspects of game design and mechanics and translating them into non-gaming situations to help solve problems and engage people in behavioural change. Although still a relatively new concept, gamification has been adopted by some forward-thinkers in sustainability and tested through a range of applications. 'Eco-gamification' is showing early promise in sustainable transport, employee engagement, energy and recycling, and there is clear potential for developing gamified processes, products to benefit employees and society generally.

Using gamification is a relatively new concept for environmental professionals, who might have reservations about the idea of making light of the world's environmental problems, but I think we are missing a trick if we do not explore its potential. The notion of harnessing and engaging the power of the collective through on-going, multi-levelled games, challenges and competition is potentially very exciting for proponents of behaviour change programmes, many of whom crave new ways to reach out to a wider audience than the 'usual suspects' of green-minded individuals. At the community level, environmentally focused social games could provide an alternative approach to engaging local people who historically may have been turned off by the overtly "save the planet" messaging.

At the business level, the use of gamification can provide a novel way of taking such schemes out of the "green champion" silo that some initiatives have had a tendency to fall into over recent years. A competition-based approach has the potential to enthuse a much broader spectrum of workers to take part. It appeals to the innate, competitive instincts of humans and potentially can provide powerful motivations to kick-start programmes of long-term organisational behavioural change, with multiple levels of engagement and complexity.

This is the basis of my London Leaders* project. I am taking familiar social games and re-imagining them. I have created environmental versions of top trumps, bingo, snakes & ladders and even that classic, old TV games show "play your cards right" and am taking them out into the community and corporate worlds and testing out their potential to: Entertain, Engage, Educate and, crucially, Engender behavioural change; the "fun & games 4Es theory". We do this through hosting games workshops and events and collecting data from participants before and after they take part to assess their level of engagement and understanding of the issues, and more importantly what action they can take, through taking part in the session.

We have hosted a range of events from the big scale, at venues such as the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, down to smaller events in schools or with corporates. The results so far are encouraging. We have a 90%+ success rate in terms of people enjoying the event, over two thirds of participants learn something useful that they can take away and action &ndash and over half say they will take action. On average, people commit to between two and five new actions at home/work – so we are getting engagement through the event. What we will not know until we conduct the longer term research is how "sticky" this approach can be. Do people remember what they have learnt through the session? Will they actually go away and action any of the new things they have learnt? These questions will hopefully be answered in the coming months as we re-contact the attendees of the events to discover how much of what they learnt they have put into action. Watch this space.

For more details about the project please visit Paula's website.

*The London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) comprises experts from business, social enterprise and the charity and public sectors. It was established in 2002 to advise the Mayor on making London an exemplary sustainable world city. The LSDC annually selects and supports a group of individuals through its ‘London Leaders programme’ who are already taking action on sustainability, but have the vision and drive to go further and inspire others to make positive changes in their communities, work places or in wider society. The purpose of the London Leaders programme is to demonstrate the power of collaboration and innovation in tackling the sustainability challenges inherent in global cities such as London. The 2013 programme is open to everyone and this year will have a particular (although not exclusive) focus on innovation, green entrepreneurialism and boosting London’s economy whilst supporting the principles of sustainable development. During the year of their appointment, each London Leader is supported by a range of experts and receives training on business planning, communications strategies, networking opportunities and mentoring. Recruitment opens in September and latest updates are via the LSDC newsletter.