News

Nov. 12, 2012

Energy efficiency experts turning to games for changing behavior

By Mark Golden

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--The key to success for online games based on saving energy is to engage people emotionally, researchers and entrepreneurs said Monday at the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference.

The “gamification” of saving energy is in its infancy, but the potential for getting people to change their behavior through fun, social and competitive means is powerful, speakers in a panel agreed. Data indicating what works is still from small studies, though larger trials are starting.

electric car charge port

“We are focusing on emotional response, rather than cognitive, for faster response, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface in learning what works,” said Nicholas Lange of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., which is developing “Vermontivate.” The competitive game rewards neighborhoods for saving energy with ice cream socials.

In northern California, a game developed by Stanford University found participants in an initial study lowered their home energy use 3 percent, which is relatively high for energy behavior change. In addition, said PhD candidate James Scarborough, 85 percent of participants said they would continue to play the Stanford game “Power House” after the study ended.

The usual ways of presenting energy use data, like utility bills, is boring, and they do not clearly tell the consumer what actions they should take to reduce waste and lower costs, Scarborough said. “Video games,” he said, “tell you exactly what you are supposed to do next to advance.”

Zema Good is a business seeking to add an energy savings layer to existing, popular games, like Farmville, rather than build a new game. In an initial trial in southern California, some 83 percent of participants said they felt their local power company was looking out for environment based on using a Zema Good application, according to the company’s Eric Senunas.

In three Facebook applications tested by a related study at Stanford, a positive emotional response and social interaction were significantly more powerful motivators than cognitive or rational appeals, said senior research scientist June Flora. Both the online game and the Facebook applications are parts of a large energy behavior project at Stanford sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference is sponsored by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the California Institute for Energy & the Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)

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Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu