Gamifying Sustainability: The Carrot Beats the Stick

Would you rather be punished or rewarded? The answer is obvious. Would you rather pay a carbon tax or play a carbon game that incentivizes you to reduce your emissions? The answer still seems obvious. However, the prevailing approach by sustainability advocates has been to shame people into changing their behavior. It hasn’t worked. While we’ve made progress, sustainability has yet to achieve mainstream adoption. Look no further than the United States’ recycling rates, organic food consumption, waste production or renewable energy generation for evidence that we need a new strategy.

Fortunately, emerging data suggests that “gamification” provides a solution to accelerating sustainability. As opposed to punishment, or “shamification,” gamification is about making sustainability fun and rewarding. The psychological drivers that have made gamification the hottest trend in conventional marketing apply equally to promoting sustainability. People play games because of the fundamental need to get challenged, be social and achieve recognition. The motivation is largely emotional. Similarly, the quest for sustainability can be seen as a game in which players strive to create a better world in order to feel better about themselves. The task is challenging; it requires a lifestyle change. The action is social; it involves the community. The reward is recognition; it signals leaders.

I’ve been working with people who are at the forefront of combining gaming and sustainability. I’m thrilled to have three of them join me for a session on “Gamifying Sustainability” at Sustainable Brands ’12, one of the world’s premier green business events. Albe Zakes, Global VP, Media Relations, at TerraCycle, will be demoing the first upcycling social game, TrashTycoon.

Developed in conjunction with Guerillapps, the game features Farmville-esque slick graphics and addictive gameplay. Most importantly, it bridges the gap between the digital and physical world by connecting with TerraCycle’s real-life recycling and charitable programs. The results are impressive. More than 700,000 people have played the game and it’s generated more than $1M dollars in advertising value.

While early gamification applications mostly targeted consumers, enterprise gamification – focused on organizations and employees – is the fastest growing segment of the market. Toward that end, Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO and Founder of Practically Green, will be discussing how she developed the leading gamification platform for helping companies optimize their sustainability programs. Practically Green’s engaging web and mobile interface employs game mechanics such as leaderboards and badges to challenge people to form groups, take green actions and measure their environmental impact at work.

Practically Green recently signed up FORTUNE 500 clients such as CA Technologies, and it encouraged Seventh Generation employees to take over 8,000 green actions in areas such as energy, waste and water.

Innovative large companies are beginning to carry the green gamification torch as well. A great example is NBC Universal. Maggie Kendall, the Director of Marketing, CSR, will be highlighting its Green is Universal program, which features a suite of green apps and games designed to educate viewers and incentivize green behavior. For example, iBloom is a Tamogochi-style simulation in which players care for flowers while navigating environmental threats and learning about nature. A new web and mobile app, One Small Act, was launched during Earth Day with celebrity support from Alec Baldwin and Maria Bartiromo. The app directs users to set sustainability goals, while each pledge contributes to the growth of a vibrant digital garden that provides real-time positive feedback.

People inherently want to protect the planet – for the sake of themselves, their families, and future generations. But people don’t want to be browbeaten into changing their behavior. Gamification makes sustainability accessible, enjoyable and rewarding. Moreover, it catalyzes a movement. People want to be part of a community, so as their peers start to live more sustainably, there is a powerful social motive to play along and join the fun.