Bright Green Games Score Points for the Planet

10 points for braking. Drive 30km/h to score 5 more points. You have unlocked Road Warrior Level 10.

Phrases like above are familiar to game console players, but now innovative green tech like Honda’s Eco-Assist integrates gameplay into real-life activities like driving your car.

Game mechanics — the set of rules that create and make a game enjoyable — might hold the power to change how we use energy by providing competition and rewards. Imagine if you could quantify daily actions, like driving a car, into a point system. You could collect points for maintaining an efficient speed, for taking corners without wasted gas, or for inflating your tires to an optimal pressure. There could be quests to unlock higher levels and social network interaction, like logging in to match scores with your neighbor or previous drivers of the car. Competition can be a powerful and healthy motivator, even when playing against yourself or the computer. You set new challenges and track the progress of your performance. And as the points rack up, you also learn good, green habits.

A colleague’s daughter attends an elementary school that dedicates an entire year’s curriculum to teaching about energy. By applying geography, statistics, politics, and natural sciences, the students trace their annual energy consumption, from farms and mines to factory floors, retailers, and finally their own home. Each step of the way, the students analyze energy inputs and outputs, noting everything they can about the resources used. How is the factory powered, and what is the fuel consumption of the delivery truck? Where do the animals get their food, and how many products crossed an ocean to get to your plate?

By building this massive calculation, the students confront global production and learn to see where materials can be saved and how to make smart consumer choices.

So, what if we could standardize and track the production chains of everything we bought? You pick up a pineapple, and it tells you how many kilowatts were used to bring it to the supermarket. You jump on a plane knowing the true cost of the trip: how was my in-flight meal prepared and how much gas did the ground staff burn, for example. You could compare this comprehensive number to an alternative flight route or with a train. What if an energy label were slapped on everything, like how food products display nutritional facts?

We have to be smarter and better informed about purchase choices. We need to be more aware of what goes into products and services, and it has to go beyond mere calorie-counting: there also has to be incentives for not buying things.

This is where game mechanics becomes really interesting. Let’s say you enter a restaurant. You check in on your mobile energy app and are presented with your day’s consumption summary. It reports that this morning you already went over the recommended energy limit, so why don’t you try the local potato soup instead of the papaya salad? You score a few points for a healthy and tree-hugging choice, and you inch past your best friend who just bought a lobster dinner down the road.

There a lot of ways to link this data (especially if it’s open). We could create an integrated system built on open standards that allows energy information to travel from device to device, purchase to purchase. If you go to Gold’s Gym in Berlin, you’ll find exercise machines strapped to generators so you can power your phone with your own exertion. What if this electric contribution could be tracked on a personal client, and you earned points for saving a few watts. You could also score big for frequenting dance clubs that channel party-goers’ kinetic energy to run the lights and sound system, or for using solar cells on your backpack to charge your laptop.

With a little design creativity and a lot of number crunching, we could build and play games that keep our planet cool, while still enjoying ourselves and the tech that makes such massive-scale energy metrics possible.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viridian_Green

Images: “Parra Poppers Hi-Scores” by Incase Designs / CC BY. “Pineapple Packaging” by tom.arthur / CC BY SA.

4 comments

  1. thornet · November 29, 2009

    NY Times ran a piece on this a bit later. Highlights include:

    • Google.org teaming with Stanford to monitor household energy data, which can be tracked via smart phone
    • Research into gaming psychology, reward systems, and environmental behavior

    http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/12/11/11climatewire-will-smart-electric-meters-lead-to-smarter-c-95965.html

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  3. Thorsten Rissom · November 29, 2009

    I am going to Gold’s Gym and I think it’s a nice idea that you can charge your phone with your own energy. If you compare the numbers you will quickly find out that this is a completely negligible amount of energy. On the other hand you learn a lot about how much trouble it is to produce electric energy ;) . Compare this to the energy label of your pineapple and maybe people start to think. As a physiscist I have to point out that it should be kWh and not KW.

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