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Fun is Over-Rated

Games really aren't a great tool for reducing climate pollution.

February 26, 2015

A recent item in Scientific American is titled, "Games Help Save Energy".  But read it all the way through (a daunting 993 words), and you'll learn that there's less to this headline than meets the eye. 

The first paragraph describes Energy Chickens, a virtual pet game developed by folks at Penn State.  What it doesn't tell you is that Energy Chickens is enabled by an infrastructure of Plugwise appliance monitors.  The monitors solve a fatal flaw exhibited by a number of earlier attempts at energy saving by means of virtual pets, namely that in the absence of an automated link, what gets rewarded is not so much the saving of energy as the self-reported saving of energy (accurate or otherwise).  But the monitoring requirement imposes a significant constraint on how, where, when and for how many people the game can proceed; each individual monitoring device costs around $40.00.  That cost isn't a show-stopper if we're talking a limited audience for a limited time period in a defined environment specifically designed to facilitate situational learning.  But it constitutes "game over" for pretty much anybody else, anytime else, anywhere else. 

Like sustainability folks on other campuses, I've tried to use games here at Greenback to engage students in issues of energy efficiency.  Results have been, at best, mixed. 

If my objective is merely to demonstrate that students are paying attention to energy consumption, it's pretty easy.  Engaging them as individuals doesn't work well, but if I can get a competition going between two or more groups of students which already have strong senses of their group identities (and, ideally, some sense of rivalry), then any reasonably designed competition with any reasonably attractive incentive scheme will work.  Competition between residence halls for least energy used per capita, or between Greek houses for least water used per person work pretty well, and can demonstrate measurable savings.  For as long as the game is on.  But not much longer.

Unlike sports which can be played either for fun or -- on a higher-dollar level -- for inter-institutional bragging rights, most energy-saving (and similar) games don't have a lot of inherent play value.  Students might realistically feel a need to unwind by shooting a few hoops.  Others might find themselves jonesing for a card game or a quest in the company of a band of wayfaring adventurers.  But not many students are likely to miss the fun of tending digital poultry.  At least, not for long.

If, as with Energy Chickens, the "game" consists of low-effort interactions with an environment designed to provide you feedback and existing explicitly for the purpose of facilitating situational learning, then (in part because the participant role is already defined as being a learning one), "playing" the game may lead to long-term behavioral modification.  And if the game is enough fun that folks play it repeatedly and start to define themselves as game players, then anything is possible.  But if the idea is to achieve some sort of subliminal learning in a constrained time period by artificially creating play-like competitive activity, my experience is that behavior change stops once the prizes are awarded and the pizza eaten, and that actual learning never does occur.


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