Gaming for the Greater Good: How Social Gaming Can Advance Sustainability

by Derrick Mains, CEO of GreenNurture

Are you an addict? Jonesing for your next dose of FarmVille, Mafia Wars or any one of the hundreds of social games popping up like weeds? Well if you aren’t, I bet you know someone who is. Oh, and if you think that this someone might be a teenage boy, then get ready to be surprised.

According to the 2010 PopCap Social Gaming study, the majority (55 percent) of social gamers are middle-aged women with a college education, and most of them are addicted, playing often and for extended periods of time (65 percent play daily or multiple times per day).

Social gaming is not a group of kids sitting around playing Mario on the ole’ Nintendo. These are games that couple rewards and recognition with game mechanics and social engagement, providing a highly addictive platform that tends to suck up time like a vortex.

I had a short affair with one particularly sticky Facebook game and, scientific research aside, my experiences in social game play and interaction with friends and co-workers in that space was eye-opening. And the people I found playing these games along with me the most were those with the busiest schedules—myself included. I picked up a gaming addiction during a time of 16-hour days, six days a week. So where did I and my game-playing peers find the time?

This new world of gaming doesn’t require a game console, Red Bull or pulling an all-nighter. These games are designed rather for short bursts of game play, challenging players to complete small tasks that take only minutes–like planting crops and coming back in eight hours to harvest, plow and replant.

If you are like me, you probably have very little time in your schedule to play a game, but what you do end up with are small segments of latency throughout the day: waiting for attendees to jump on a conference call, the few moments each morning when you check your social networks and the space between meetings when you just need two or three minutes to chill out. This is the time that social media applications and social gaming pervades. It only takes a minute to send a Tweet or update your Facebook status, and now that minute is being corralled and put to work in the social gaming industry.

A spare minute in and of itself seems trivial, but when added together with tens of millions of others’ spare minutes, it becomes the power of the collective. Last month, according to, 61.6 million people tended a farm on FarmVille. Now, if each one of these people spent just five minutes per week playing that would mean there was more than 20 million hours of collective game play on that application last month.

A whole lot could be accomplished in 20 million hours a month.

So why are we spending so much time in these outlets, in games? Some experts say it is because we don’t feel we can accomplish as much in real life as we do in the virtual worlds. We don’t pick up gold coins as we walk around the office, and there is no ticker in the right-hand corner of our life that calculates how many we have acquired. We can’t “level-up” after completing a company project. In fact, Jane McGonigal, a game researcher and designer, goes so far as to say in a presentation at the 2010 TED conference that “we feel we are not as good in reality as we are in games.” So why don’t we harness the collective and allow them to do something “good,” to solve world problems?

Harnessing collective intelligence to complete tasks is nothing new.  Since its launch last summer, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been mapping the moon, capturing terabytes worth of data about its rocks and craters. The challenge is that this data needs to be viewed, sorted and cataloged, and that effort takes a lot of eyes (aka time and money). Enter, a site created by Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott that harnesses the eyes and interest of amateur astronomers worldwide, empowering them to catalog and measure craters and rocks–even allowing them to flag oddities they see when exploring the moon’s surface. This project uses the collective intelligence of interested parties to save NASA millions and educate and amuse enthusiasts worldwide.  And it is very likely that those spending time on these virtual moon missions are as busy as you and I.

Another example of rounding up what you need from the collective is the recent appearance of virtual tip jars—except what these bloggers, artists and musicians need is not astronomy, but rather, money. The public is able donate spare change —their tip– to show support for what they read, saw or heard. It’s a good concept – large donors are hard to find and small ones can easily become fans, sharing the artist’s ideology, music and passion with their peers.

So how does this translate to the sustainability movement?

Our environmental issues are both deep and wide, daunting challenges that will require a large scale global effort but instead of finding the next activist that will spend his or her evenings and weekends on the cause – we should be looking to the interested masses and finding ways to engage them during that random minute or three a day or finding ways to collect the spare change they have between the seat cushions.  Finding ways to engage them by bringing the challenge of sustainability to their space—the gaming space.

This isn’t just a social issue; businesses are perfectly positioned to influence the people who they pay for 480 minutes of work each day to take small actions that equate to large collective results and providing the rewards and recognition that encourage them to take action. Creating simple games and keeping score is a great way to encourage people inside your organization to save you time, money and the planet. But keeping score is key – who really wants to play a game where no one wins?

Of course in this new field there still must be leaders and there still must be people who build the games, create the rules and measure the outputs. The next generation of leaders will be those who can figure out how to harness the latent minutes of their co-workers, congressmen and the general public and make the common good a game that everyone wants to play.


Derrick Mains is the CEO of GreenNurture, the corporate sustainability software company. harnesses the collective intelligence of employees to drive sustainability efforts forward around social, environmental and financial performance. The resulting analytics provide the necessary intelligence for decision-makers and offer transparency to stakeholders.

Mains has a deep understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility, having been involved in recycling, sustainability and product stewardship initiatives for the Fortune 1000. His efforts have been seen on more than five billion consumer products globally.

Mains is also the host of “Your Triple Bottom Line,” a Phoenix-based radio show focused on the business of sustainability.

Mains can be reached at and followed on Twitter at @enviralmentalst.

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10 responses

  1. Derrick,

    Great post! You really captured the nuances of the hows and whys of gaming and its impact on sustainability. This is already huge, in terms of number of people playing, and the sustainability impact has a lot of room to grow.

    I actually spent an entire semester studying this topic, and you might be interested in this video which summarizes the paper I wrote about it:

    I’d be more than happy to send you the paper, if you are interested.

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  3. Oh my word! Imagine my surprise and delight when one of the websites I launched in another life (Gamasutra) finds its way to be mentioned by one of my favorite bloggers in my new life! Having played an active role in building the Game Developer community in the 90’s (I know, crazy, huh — ask me another time) it is so great to see the growing movement of intentional use of games for good. Must explore at SB’11 :)

  4. Thanks for the comments, tweets and many emails about this article. I was really surprised at the number of people that have reached out and were enlightened by what I wrote.

    Really appreciate the support . . . more to come.

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