Leveraging Game Mechanics to Spread Sustainability: Four Rules

By Eric Liu and Connie Kwan

Children explore the real world through play, while ironically, adults play games to escape the real world.  But one thing is certain: people love to play games.  So how can we use games to make a difference in the real world?

Awareness: going viral

Just one month after its release, the game “Farmville” had 33 million players.  How did they do it?  By combining fun and social interactivity, Farmville spread to reach an audience that far outstripped any sustainability campaign in history.

Sustained Interest: no one-hit wonders

And they’re still playing.  Games are structured to create a relationship with the player and to keep that engagement over time.  Too often, people get excited about a cause: saving the rainforest, saving the polar bears, fighting smog, or shutting down sweatshops in Asia, but that willingness to take action rarely lasts the year.  People who played Super Mario Bros. in 1985 picked up Super Mario Galaxy twenty-five years later.  Game mechanics can be leveraged by sustainability leaders to engage the people of this world and maintain that interest over a lifetime.
Leveraging Game Mechanics

So how do we grab people’s attention and keep them engaged in sustainability?  Game mechanics is a reputable field of study that leverages the basic human desires for feedback, reward, and validation.   At Orrick’s Gamification of Life event, author of “Game-Based Marketing” Gabe Zichermann and the other panelists explained the four rules of game mechanics that drives stickiness:

1. Status makes the world go round

Games are based on points.  Points tell you how well you’re doing compared to others and reward you for all your hard work pushing buttons.  In the real world, the default point system is money.  But money is just a proxy for status, and points can be used just as effectively to drive sustainable behavior as money.  In the gaming world, status is conveyed through points, levels, badges, and leaderboards.  In the real world, United Airlines has created the largest point-based game in the world, with levels ranging from premier to premier executive, and bonus prizes at high scores of one, two and three million miles.

2. Reward Early, Reward Often, Never Dis-incentivize

Conventional wisdom dictates that people are motivated by both carrot and sticks.  But in a world where people can choose not to play at the first sign of a stick, carrots are much more effective.  And when your reward system is based on a virtual point system, carrots are free.

3. Give Unexpected Rewards

Casino slot machines are addictive because of this principle.  The player keeps putting the coins in with the hope that the machine will hit on the next pull.  Established bonus systems with a predictable schedule are ineffective because a establishes a sense of entitlement.  If an employee cannot predict the next bonus check, then when it comes it wold be surprising, movitvating and an event to be talked about and remembered.  Games have unpredictable bonuses that keep the rewards fresh.

4. Unfold over time: a beginner has different needs than an expert

Game manufacturers understand that the first time someone sees an interface, they need to have only a couple options (which are then rewarded instantly.)  But to keep long term interest, the game needs to build skills, become more complex, and remain challenging.  Any successful endeavor that seeks to mimic the success of games needs to realize that the user has different needs at different points of development.

So how do games save the world?

Well, it’s already started.  Ford Fusion’s SmartGauge animates a growing vine when the driver drives conservatively and saves gas.  These are free carrots that reward early, often, and never dis-incentivize.  Suppose we add status and social context.  Over time drivers with safer habits accumulate points that can be compared to their friends, or more importantly, their past selves.  Some monetary rewards can be used to kick start interest, like car insurance discounts or health insurance rebates for walking 30 minutes a day.  But it’s important that we realize the true motivator is status, not money.  The Wii fit does not pay players to exercise.  Similarly, cities with resource constraints can promote recycling and conservation of electricity, water, and garbage with a fun, well-thought out points and status system independent of financial incentives.  RecycleBank is an example of a company working with cities to reward points for positive green actions.

Changing the Culture of Stuff… to virtual stuff

Western culture celebrates consumerism, connecting status with conspicuous wealth.  Imagine the impact on sustainability of changing that dynamic.  At the Greener Mind Summit, leaders in the local sustainability movement discussed the use of virtual stuff as a replacement for physical goods in designating status.  Studies show a flattening of happiness above a certain income level as money loses its utility and becomes just a way of keeping score.  Players of Farmville and Mafia Wars, for instance, gave over $1.5 million for Haitian earthquake victims in exchange for virtual rewards.  Introducing a status system independent of money might provide the foundation for a flatter distribution of wealth.

Games rely on intrinsic human needs in order to engage players for hours on end and keeps that engagement fresh for years.  This framework for motivation has the power to teach us better habits, educate the world on sustainability, and remake our society to be more fair, prosperous, and fun.


Eric Liu manages research and development at Palm, Inc. and writes for Changing the World and other minor thoughts.

Connie Kwan is pursuing her MBA in Sustainability at Presidio Graduate School and writes for Sustainable Thinking and Living.

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7 responses

  1. Great article. RecycleBank is also expanding its offering into the work place through a partnership with my company GreenNurture – we use game mechanics to reward employee action and ideas around sustainability and then provide them rewards (through RecycleBank) and recognition to peers and management.

    Another great article about the use of game mechanics in the workplace is http://www.steptwo.com.au/papers/kmc_gametheory

    1. Thanks for linking the article on game mechanics. Great read. GreenNuture is a great concept. How is the adoption rate of GreenNuture at companies? Is participation generally voluntary or systematic?

      1. Connie it really depends – most companies we are working with explain to employees that the application gives them a voice and allows them to share their ideas at their will (while getting recognition and rewards) but as is all social media – there are early adopters and outliers. The early adopters start sharing on day 1, the outliers tend to watch from the sidelines. But that is ok with us – some people aren't sharers, but by reading others ideas and content we are nurturing a culture of sustainability and increasing engagement and awareness of the issues.

        Hope that makes sense!

        Best regards.

  2. Another interesting example of the games-for-good concept is Armchair Revolutionary – http://www.armrev.org/ – which combines micro-donations with gaming challenges to engage people in supporting social and environmental causes. While it's still in beta phase, it looks pretty cool so far…

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