Why companies are fueling the rise of green gaming

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Who said going green had to be boring?

Maybe the same people who believe games are just entertainment.

Both myths are being shattered by the growing phenomenon of green gamification, the use of games to make sustainability fun and rewarding. This growth is being accelerated by forces ranging from the government’s Green Button promotion of energy usage data to the digital generation’s strong desire for smartphone apps that allow them to manage resource consumption.      

Much as Nike+ Fuelband is turning exercise from a chore into a cool activity, a suite of green web and mobile apps are transforming the way people approach environmental stewardship. From startups such as Leafully to corporate alliances that increase energy efficiency, gamification is emerging as a powerful weapon to advance sustainability.

In isolation, recycling a bottle or turning off the lights may not sound exciting to the average person. Jogging was seen as a burden to many outside the fitness enthusiast community before the emergence of gamified apps. But whether you’re working out or conserving water, actions become rewarding when they are measurable, engaging and shared.

Social comparison — the relative performance compared to peers — is a powerful motivator for achievement. Not only are people driven to gain status and recognition by social sharing, but there is also positive peer pressure to avoid being a laggard. Do you want to be the house on the block with the worst recycling rate?       

The Zynga of green gamification is Opower, which is a software player that processes big household energy data into a gamified interface that helps people reduce their power consumption and utility bills. The company partners with utilities to analyze data in more than 50 million homes and it closed out 2012 by saving users an estimated 2 terawatt hours of energy, or $200 million.  

Greenbean Recycle is a Boston-based startup changing the attitude and behaviors about recycling on the campuses of some of the nation’s best colleges, including MIT, Harvard and Tufts. Greenbean’s game mechanics, such as intercollegiate challenges and recycling lotteries, have resulted in up to a 40 percent increase of the recycling rate. Moreover, Greenbean is cracking the code of one of recycling’s main hurdles: how to get people to recycle nondeposit bottles that don’t pay a redemption value. By posting leaderboards and rewarding the top recyclers, Greenbean’s collection is 30 percent nondeposit materials that would normally be destined for overcrowded landfills.     

Other new green gaming companies that raised millions of dollars in venture funding include My Energy and Practically Green, which both use the social web to calculate environmental footprint metrics and reward users for their performance.

Even historically static sectors, such as academia, nonprofit and small business, are embracing innovation through green gamification. Ocean explorer and activist Philippe Cousteau, in conjunction with Jeffrey Plank at the University of Virginia, developed a massively multiplayer online game to simulate the impacts of human activity on the health of Chesapeake Bay (which is the largest estuary in the U.S.). Players of the UVA Bay Game take on the role of key stakeholders — ranging from fisherman to regulators — to learn systems-thinking and collaboration.

Cousteau, Plank and I spoke on a 2012 SXSW panel with Intel’s Carrie Freeman, who asserted that corporations can leverage the UVA Bay Game model to solve business challenges such as balancing company versus community water needs. The UVA Bay Game developers recently announced a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new version of the simulation focused on a major Texas watershed.

While small business owners are often pressed for time and money, thousands across the country have joined the Green Business Bureau, which offers a gamified online sustainability tool that helps assess, manage and report on a library of 400-plus green initiatives. One GBB member, NewMarket International, shaved $60,000 of its annual budget by following the adaptive survey’s recommendations and reducing packaging waste, among other green achievements. GBB’s technology also powers green business certification for nonprofit Green America and Intuit’s small business supplier network.     

The main reason people play green games is that they are fun. A more sustainable world is the convenient — and welcome — byproduct.

Image by tedeytan via Compfight cc.

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