Even though most humans are innately driven to protect the planet, they’re likely to dig in their heels and refuse when outside forces attempt to bully them into action. That’s why the long-established method of shaming people into changing their behavior has failed to work. If we want to effect true progress, to see sustainability achieve mainstream adoption, we’re going to have to opt for another approach.

That’s where gamification comes in.

Though gamification is still a relatively new concept, it’s already been implemented (and seen success) in the health, fitness and financial sectors. The psychological influences that have attributed to gamification’s efficaciousness in these areas are just as applicable to the field of sustainability.

So what is gamification? Simply put, it’s the concept of applying game design and mechanics to real-world problems. By employing the principles that make games engaging — a sense of fun, competition, achievement, gratification and improvement — gamification increases the motivation, engagement and contribution of the target audience, and produces the desired results through their involvement.

When it comes to sustainability, gamification taps into the fundamental human need to be challenged and makes being eco-friendly accessible, enjoyable and rewarding. It drives change by taking advantage of people’s eagerness to be part of a community. Many people feel powerless in the face of our overwhelming sustainability problem, and individual action seems almost pointless. Not only does gamification help them see themselves as part of something larger, it also illustrates the impact they have — the significant difference they make.

Let’s take a look at the effect gamification has already had on sustainability.

In the Community

In order to shape the future into something we can actually look forward to, our citizens have to play a more active and involved role. Advancing the cause of sustainability is one of the best ways to effect a positive change — but getting the populace to buy into it is no easy feat.

Multiple companies and schools have worked to make sustainability more engaging for the masses. Here are just a few:

  • Arizona State University is piloting a groundbreaking course that combines technology and gamification to engage students in a game where they help a community address challenging environmental and sustainability issues. At the end of the course, students are graded based on how their decisions impacted environmental, economic and social sustainability, as well as how motivated students were to explore and find resources to inform their decisions.
  • In Boston, Greenbean Recycle installs reverse vending machines on college campuses, allowing students to earn rewards for recycling cans and bottles, as well as compete with friends to win the title of top recycler. Their efforts have resulted in a 40 percent increase in the recycling rate on Boston campuses.
  • Together with utility companies, software company Opower provides homeowners with data on how much energy they are consuming as well as how they match up with their neighbors. By encouraging friendly competition, Opower helps people reduce their power consumption and utility bills. In fact, by the end of 2012, users had saved an estimated 2 terawatt hours of energy, or $200 million.

At a community level, gamification presents an opportunity to involve those who may have been alienated by the more obtrusive messages put forward by eco-advocates in the past. Recycling, saving energy and conserving water is even more fulfilling and worthwhile when made measurable, entertaining and shareable.

In Business

Sustainability has become an integral part of business operations in the past few years — but employees aren’t always as passionate about it as executives might like. At a business level, gamification provides a way to engage a broad spectrum of employees in sustainable practices by using a competition-based approach. Fun and interactive activities are far more appealing and successful than the standard guilt, blame and shame-based negative approach typical in office politics.

Many large companies have turned to gamification in an attempt to boost their sustainability efforts and bring about a behavioral change in their employees.

  • AMP Capital launched a competition across seven stories of their Sydney headquarters with the express goal of seeing which floor could reduce energy the most and achieve the highest waste recycling rates over a four-month period. “Floor Wars” was a smashing success, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in energy.
  • Environmental nonprofit GreenBlue offers a simple and fun way to educate employees on sustainability, particularly as it relates to consumerism, waste and business.
  • T-Mobile promoted sustainable practices through a combination of gamification and charity. The company incentivized low-cost bookings in their corporate travel program by offering charitable donations to the Eden Project, an organization and initiative committed to the reforestation of Haiti. Adoption and compliance with the company’s travel program increased, and resulted in nearly 90,000 trees being planted across Haiti.

There are a few things that are crucial to making gamification both beneficial and successful in the workplace. First, there needs to be challenging — but achievable — goals to encourage participation. Second, rewards are a must in order to boost productivity and drive performance. Finally, games should be social in order to facilitate peer collaboration and face-to-face networking. This gets employees interacting across departments and in ways they wouldn’t normally in day-to-day operations.

It’s not rocket science — people play games because they’re fun. If we want to thrust sustainability into the mainstream consciousness, we’re going to need to make it far more enjoyable, accessible and rewarding. Although both gamification and the sustainability movement are in their formative years, we can expect to see them evolve together to produce more of an impact.

By Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.