How gamification can help your business play on sustainability's team

Image credit: CC license by gadl/Flickr

Editor’s note: This article is extracted from the book How Gamification Can Help Your Business Engage in Sustainability (Dō Sustainability, February 2013) by Paula Owen. GreenBiz readers can use code GBiz10 at to receive 10 percent off any DōShort. 

Behavior change interventions have so far had limited success in motivating wider society into taking positive environmental actions. Despite constant bombardment of messages regarding ice caps melting, sea levels rising, polar bears drowning, exceptional droughts, 100-year storm occurrences becoming more frequent, resource depletion and habitat destruction, it is surprising that a majority of the population still do nothing more than put the recycling out once a week and buy fair trade bananas from their local supermarket. 

One theory for why people refuse to change their lifestyles and habits in the face of mounting evidence of harm is that, in the case of climate change in particular, the issue is too disparate, difficult to pinpoint and, despite the efforts of hundreds of the world’s best climate scientists, still considered uncertain as to the causes. In addition, the potential effects of a warming world are still too distant in both space and time to galvanise immediate action by individuals. If this is the case, and little in the short term can be done about these opinions and attitudes, then there has to be another route to persuade people to change the way they live to become less resource-intensive and carbon-footprint-heavy. 

Enter gamification. Although gamification is still a new concept, it has been adopted by some forward thinkers in the sustainability space 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 and ways of working that will benefit employees, business and its bottom line more generally.

Turning vision into action

We live in an era where embracing sustainability commercially is accepted as a viable, cost-effective route to opening up new markets and customers and to gaining stakeholder trust. Sustainability has become a core pillar for non-financial metrics reporting in the corporate world. The discussion has moved on to the challenge of converting this sustainability vision into transformation, for the long term, in the way employees, customers and shareholders engage with the concept. 

The notion of harnessing the power of the collective through ongoing, multi-levelled challenges and competition is potentially very exciting for proponents and practitioners of environmental sustainability and behaviour change programs, many of whom are craving new, engaging ways in which to reach out to a wider audience than the “usual suspects” of green-minded individuals within an organization, business or community. 

At the community level, gamification could provide an alternative approach to engaging local people in activities and campaigns, people who historically may have been turned off by the overtly “green,” “eco” or “save the planet” messaging that green advocates and evangelists tend to enthusiastically espouse. 

At the business level, gamification provides a novel way of engaging employees – taking such schemes out of the “green champion”/”environmental rep” silo that some well-intentioned, but limited, initiatives have had a tendency to fall into over recent years. The wider appeal of a challenge or competition-based approach has the potential to enthuse a much broader spectrum of workers to take part in such schemes. It appeals to the innate, competitive instincts of humans and potentially can provide powerful motivations to kick-start programs of long-term organizational behavioral change with multiple levels of engagement and complexity to suit all-comers. So, let’s take a look at how gamification can provide a new route into encouraging people to change their habits. 

We already have suggested that one reason why more people do not take up the challenge of mitigating climate change is that they feel powerless in the face of such an overwhelming problem. It can appear that individual action is ultimately ineffectual and a bit of a waste of time. “Why bother trying to cut down on my household’s electricity bill to reduce my footprint when China is building a new coal-powered station every five days?” is an oft-quoted excuse for apathy and inaction. 

One obvious pathway out of this inaction is to show people that they are making a difference, they can make an impact -- maybe not individually, but as part of a work team, community group, virtual crowd, neighborhood, nation, whatever. This is where the power of games comes into its own.

Why gamification works

Jane McGonigal, in her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, talks about the idea of an “engagement economy,” creating a group or community where nothing may have been there before, to come together to achieve something concrete, whether it be a goal to reach, a challenge to overcome or a quantity of tasks to achieve. She argues the way to do this is to give the group a challenge, turn it into a competition and give regular feedback on how the individual, as well as the “engaged group” as a whole, is doing. This is the essence of what gamification does. It can turn a relatively mundane task into an adventure. It gives people the purpose and the challenge they need to get motivated and involved; regular feedback gives them information and encouragement on what their impact is and how much progress they are making (and if they aren’t, encouragement to help make them “up their effort”); it shows them how they are doing in comparison with others and showing that there is the possibility of success, however huge the challenge. 

As they say, “It ain’t rocket science,” and we’re not revealing anything you didn’t instinctively know already, but the neat encapsulation of these elements in a gamified process gives it its novelty and power. 

Giving people the sense that they are not in it alone is important. That their individual effort, albeit tiny in isolation, when seen in context with the efforts of many other, like-minded souls, does actually make a significant impact is enough to dissipate the inertia and helplessness of the individual and turn them into a competitive “eco-warrior.”

Yes, the challenge of mitigating climate change is still of epic proportions and, yes, the individual’s contribution to the solution is still tiny in isolation, but large, audacious challenges are taken every single day by regular, everyday people the world over. You only have to see the rise in the popularity of marathon running, by seemingly ordinary folk who never had run for the bus before taking up the challenge and succeeding at it, to realize that if the challenge, motivation, feedback and competition is set at the right level, anything is possible. 

Hence, we postulate, it’s worth giving the ideas and techniques of gamification a go in the sustainability space. Basically, what have we got to lose?

Image credit: CC license by gadl/Flickr