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Play on: Using games to engage employees in sustainability

<p>Can a scavenger hunt uncover new ways for your employees to think about sustainability?</p>

As sustainability becomes a core strategy for companies, employers face a challenge: They have a workforce that cares about the company’s success, but sustainability is often a new concept that may be hard to relate to personally. Based on a National Environmental Education Foundation/Roper Report, only 12 percent of Americans would pass a basic energy quiz. Companies increasingly need to fill that gap by providing education and awareness programs that both engage and drive behavior change. This is where game-based learning can work and where, recently, our team put one collaborative digital/nondigital game to the test.

The Great Green Scavenger Hunt

As a company that specializes in using digital game mechanics and social mechanics to engage people in sustainable choices, we generally test new ideas on ourselves. For our annual plan-and-play day, we decided to create a combined online (mobile) and offline scavenger hunt. It was essentially a multiplayer, collaborative and competitive game to learn about sustainability in the city of Boston. Kudos to the GreenBiz Innovation Forum and for sparking the idea.

Here are the six core elements of the game:

  1. Teams: I created three teams that offered the opportunity for creative collaboration, competition and relationship building. We mixed new employees and seasoned staffers, junior- and senior-level workers, engineering and sales. I even put a few people together where I knew enhancing the relationship for the long term was critical.
  2. Tasks: Each team was given a set of tasks that had to be completed in a set amount of time. The tasks, which included food pickups and photo taking, provided a specific objective and path of accomplishment that was distinct for each team. (It also led to provisions for a big celebration at the end.)
  3. Challenges: Everyone got a list of the same challenges. These 15 opportunities for learning and interaction were the core of what we wanted people to learn about sustainability. The challenges included things like finding a reservoir, locating a green dry cleaner and snapping a photo of four vegetarians. Each challenge completed earned points, plus extra credit opportunities. For example, finding a green dry cleaner was worth 50 points. Get a video of the owner explaining why the company is green and you won 100 extra points. While our challenges were external in the community, in a large-enough company, this could easily be completely internal.
  4. Judge’s discretion: To reward the truly motivated or creative teams, we kept the points for three challenges as a “judge’s discretion,” which kept an element of surprise in the game and also provided a team that was trailing an opportunity to come from behind.
  5. Mobile phones: Mobile was a key element of our program because it’s how people documented either via phone or video their challenges or tasks and how the central “judges” communicated status throughout the course of the game. This both increased the sense of competition (“Team 3 is up by 100 points!”) as well as captured the truly priceless material from the competition, like the video of our staff scientist explaining why something was greenwash, or our favorite food truck explaining its composting operation. Our approach was relatively low-tech mobile, much to the chagrin of a few of our developers who used to work at a mobile game company.
  6. Prizes: There was no prize — and that didn’t seem to matter. Everyone commented on how they got to see the city through a different lens, and every team now knows where their water comes from. I got emails afterwards commenting on how much fun the day was and how it was great to get to know people they didn’t work with. That said, looking back and now seeing how much fun people had, we may consider a team trophy that rotates each year.

Whether a sustainability expert or relative newbie, everyone on our team learned a lot about sustainability in Boston. What’s more, people were engaged together in ways they don’t always get to be in their day jobs. We know we’ll see benefits from this in overall collaboration and retention. Long term, we’re also clearly looking for the benefits in terms of innovation. By playing and understanding these kinds of game dynamics better ourselves, how can we improve our products and services more generally? By learning more about sustainability in our community, how can we be more sustainable as a company?

We’ve rolled out the scavenger hunt idea onto our platform to encourage our clients to try it with their employees as part of their overall sustainability engagement program. (If you are not a client and would like general instructions for the scavenger hunt, send a request to The videos were such a hit that it has arguably fast-tracked a feature that will enable our users to share videos with their colleagues. And several employees have already pledged to switch to a green dry cleaner.

If a half-day game can influence a company that already knew a lot about sustainability and game dynamics, what can it do for your company?

Image by reallyround via Shutterstock

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