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07 March 2019

Energy's got game

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Saving the planet can mean saving money and having fun. This is not wishful thinking but a reality that is happening with gamification all over the world

Playing games could be a solution to saving energy. Using energy more efficiently is, of course, a crucial part of fighting climate change, since oil and fossil fuels continue to be the most important energy source in the world, including Europe.

Buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU. By changing our daily behaviour, we could boost energy efficiency. Unfortunately, convincing people to abandon their habits is not easy, complains Bernard Tamain, a scientist and energy expert member of the NGO Save the Climate: “The heating of homes and workplaces should be reduced by limiting the temperature to 18°C, but I often hear people around me refuse to make this effort. We should travel by bike, by train or walk, but I often see parents, for example, use their car to pick up their children at school only 500 metres from home. We should take shorter showers, but I see that young people don’t do it.”

The problem is not lack of knowledge: campaigns have been going on for years informing citizens. People just don’t feel at ease making sacrifices for the environment. But what if they did it for fun? Here is where games and gamification come into play.

Educational games, of course, are not a new idea, but the rise of gaming for “social good” was largely influenced by a widely viewed TED talk that game designer and author Jane McGonigal gave in 2010 on how games can “save the world”. During her talk she insisted that by playing games, “We’re actually changing what we are capable of as human beings. We’re evolving to be a more collaborative and hearty species.”

However, it has been pointed out that the so-called “serious games”, complete games in a closed virtual environment, have limits, in particular they do not necessarily make good habits become permanent. You play the game, you have fun for the time being, then you go back to your everyday life and nothing guarantees that in real life you will actually keep behaving the same way as in virtual reality.

Gamification, on the other hand, is an altogether different story, since its aim is to bring the benefits of games into real life. People, for instance, can compete for the lowest energy consumption, and there might be rewards.

A practical example is the San Diego Energy Challenge, a pilot programme in the US that was conducted in 2012 by San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and SimpleEnergy, an IT-company specialised in energy savings. In this case, smart metres were used to engage customers by means of a friendly competition. By saving energy, households were able to win prizes for themselves – from tablets to gift cards – and for their favourite local middle school. The grand prize was 15,000 dollars. The status and points were displayed on a website.

In Europe, more recently, a number of projects have been launched such as Virtual Energy Advisor, an app developed by the Catalan start-up Enerbyte. It allows users to compare their electricity consumption with that of their neighbours or of the previous year, thus providing an incentive to use energy more efficiently.

But critics say that even gamification has often failed to deliver the expected results. According to Ashley Morton, researcher at De Montfort University, in Leicester, UK, “many of these apps are designed without taking into consideration who the user is or what they might want from the app or tool. Typically they target one user type or one building type, but one-size-fits-all solutions will not work.” She is part of the team working on the EU project eTEACHER, whose aim is to create an app, an ICT tool to encourage and enable building users to adopt more energy-efficient behaviour change, which includes gamification.

To do so, thorough research has been conducted to avoid the exact mistake mentioned above. “The preliminary phase of the research has focused on social studies within the pilot buildings, which are offices, schools, healthcare centres and homes,” explains Morton. ‘’We carried out a complex study aimed at understanding the users’ profile, the key factors influencing energy behaviours and the current energy issues in each building. A highly personalised approach to create the app.’’

The studies have been carried out through workshops organised by the Nottingham City Council. From the recommendations by participants, three main themes have emerged: the app must be within easy reach physically (accessible on mobile phones but also on PCs, for students who cannot take their phones into the classroom for example); it must easily integrate into the user’s every day routine and require little time and effort; finally, it should perpetually entice users to change their behaviour and, in the long term, to adopt good habits towards energy efficiency.

Serious games, on the other hand, were rejected by most respondents, who made it clear they do not have time to play games during the day. According to the project team, this was predictable, given the context in which many of these buildings are used; many are workplace environments or include healthcare centres. “Overall, it was typically the students who were keen on a games option – however they were also restricted in their use of smartphones during school hours, and they would therefore be limited in participating,” adds Morton.

Therefore, only gamification will be kept in the engagement programme, and the researchers are evaluating how the most compelling elements of it, namely, social interaction and rewards, will be implemented.

The team is currently in the designing stage of the tool, which is expected to be tested in the pilot buildings in October.

Feedback forums will be created to consult users throughout the app’s development. “Those citizens will continually be a part of the process, we will keep refining the product so that it suits their needs and satisfies their wants and expectations,” says Sam Preston from Nottingham City Council. This should make it a tailored tool, able to meet the needs of any user, no matter how demanding they are. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.