Games With A Green Heart

A while back, I posed a question to the twitter-verse: what topic would you like to see covered here at Recognition Pattern? There were several requests for “green games” and given the current climate (excuse the pun) surrounding environmental and urban planning issues I thought that this was a very interesting area to explore. There are, in fact, a number of games concerned with not only educating the public on green issues but actively encouraging participants to engage in environmentally friendly practices in the real world.

Bottle Bank Arcade

The Fun Theory is a well-known Volkswagen initiative that uses fun as the “easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better… be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.” The Bottle Bank Arcade Machine was a project designed to encourage the recycling of glass bottles. Sensors, lights and speakers were added to a bottle bank to provide positive feedback whenever a glass bottle was deposited. The video below shows how delighted users were when engaging with the arcade, with a real effect on the rate of recycling: the bottle bank arcade was used by 100 people while only two people used the conventional recycling bin during the same period.

One could argue whether such a system can really promote sustainable long-term change in user behaviour but its clear that people experienced a much deeper emotional connection with the arcade than simply dropping a bottle into an inert repository. Moreover, even though the action in both situations was exactly the same, the way it made the user feel is entirely different.

Recycling for the virtual and real worlds

Trash Tycoon by Guerilla Apps

Launched in 2011, Trash Tycoon is a social network game developed by US-based social games startup Guerillapps. Currently in beta, the game is similar to other Facebook farm-type games where the player interacts with a virtual city by clicking their way trough a series of tasks such as clearing piles of trash and cleaning buildings. More interestingly, players can then sort through their collected trash, using organic waste to feed worm farms and produce fertilizer while certain found objects can be ‘upcycled’ into items that can be kept or sold.

Screenshot from Trash Tycoon on Facebook

The game was developed in partnership with TerraCycle, a company that converts collected waste (particularly non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste) into a variety of products and materials. When waste is collected in the real world and brought to TerraCycle, players can earn virtual points in Trash Tycoon. Although this forms a tangible link between real world action and virtual progress in an online game, I can’t help but think it should be the other way round. However, it should be noted that Trash Tycoon does donate 10% of in-game purchases to CarbonFund, a non-profit organization focused on climate change education as well as carbon offsets and reduction.

Knowledge is power

For those of us who drive to work every day, the thought of our annual carbon emission contribution may leave us in a cold sweat but one innovative product uses game mechanics to provide drivers with the information they need to reflect on how they drive.

Ford SmartGuage and EcoGuide, dashboard.

In 2008, designers at the Ford Motor Company collaborated with innovation and design firm IDEO and design studio Smart Design, to develop the Ford SmartGauge with EcoGuide. An “innovative instrument cluster” for Ford’s hybrid cards, the system is a very clever feedback mechanism for driver behaviour.

In the game world, a player will moderate their play style and behaviour as they learn a game’s rule system in order to achieve optimal performance. But to do this, the game must provide sufficient and timely feedback so that the player can alter their actions accordingly. The SmartGauge dashboard features a vine and leaf which grows and blooms depending on how the user drives, as well as indicators for how many miles per gallon the vehicle is consuming and how many more miles until fuel runs out. Thus, the SmartGauge is not just measure of current behaviour but also a way to compare and moderate future behaviour. In this way an individual can track and monitor their own performance over time. But what if users want to get competitive?

Around 2010 General Motors started to sell a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle called the Chevrolet Volt. Mike Rosack owned a Chevy Volt and used a Volt iPhone app to do things like remotely monitor the state of charge of the car’s battery or change the charge mode. But Rosack soon discovered that he could connect other users and compare their charge rates. He deveoped a website called Volt Stats! (not affiliated with Chevrolet) and a meta-game and enthusiastic community of users was unlocked.

Volt Stats! leaderboard of top ten users.

As the websites states, “Volt Stats interfaces with the OnStar webservice used by the iPhone/Android RemoteLink apps to collect data about the performance of Volts driving in the real world.”

A leaderboard was established where car owners can demonstrate just how efficiently they drive and recharge, sharing statistics such as miles per gallon (MPG), MPGe (equivalent), and MPGcs (cs stands for charge-sustaining mode, or the time when the gasoline engine is supplying all the energy). The website is a powerful demonstration of how a shared interest and competitive spirit can motivate people to moderate their behaviour for positive change.

Imagine if…

Games and game mechanics can encourage participants to modify existing behaviours (Ford SmartGuage) or start new ones (Bottle Arcade) but they can also immerse players in a world so deeply that they experience something they have never felt before (or don’t have the opportunity to) and gain a completely new perspective.

World Without Oil (WWO) was an alternate reality game (ARG) developed in 2007 by a multidisciplinary team including game designers Ken Eklund and the awesome Jane McGonigal. Designed to simulate the first 32 days of a global oil crisis, the game was an immersive experience that forced players to consider how this hypothetical event could affect their every day lives. The game was played by 1800 people across 12 countries. Players developed their own narratives, imagined a new world and shared countless images, videos and blogs. Without preaching or dictating what players should think or feel, the game allowed people to create and share their thoughts and concerns without judgement. As one player puts it so well:

“As for me, in this here and now, I’m a different person thanks to WWO. I’m much more aware of the fragile thread that supports the lifestyle I and others keep. I’m making changes, but there’s a long way to go. But I AM changing, and that means that for me, WWO was a success”.

There’s no magic key to ensuring changes in behaviour in the game world or in a game-like environment can result in immediate success in the real world, but if we could harness even just a small percentage of the enthusiasm people have for sticking to and achieving their goals on screen it may go a long way to solving many of the environmental challenges that we face today and in the future.

This post was first published on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *