When millions of people spend millions of pounds and millions of hours doing something essentially trivial, unproductive and fundamentally pointless you have a choice: You can either dismiss them all as ‘stupid’, or ask “why?”
The video games industry is now bigger than the recorded music industry and titles from ‘first person shooters’ to home exercise trainers have grossed over a $1bn each. As sustainability practitioners we should stop and ask “what can the popularity of video games teach us about how to engage people?” and “how can we use this to encourage pro-environmental behaviour change?” In fact, I believe that to ignore such a powerful trend, or simply label it ‘stupid’, would border on irresponsible.
In a recent article John Elkington drew attention to one of many insights into human behaviour coming from a burst of academic interest on the subject. The narrowness of the ‘video games make us violent’ debate is being superseded by a deeper understanding of human computer interaction. Indeed, the richest pickings of this relatively new world are coming from a better understanding of positive psychology and Mihaly Csikszentmihali’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a great primer for anyone wanting to build a firm foundation in this topic.
That’s all well and good but how can this help the sustainability agenda and what does it have to do with innovation? Sustainability communicators have an enormously difficult challenge and the early tactics of apocalyptic warnings and the tried and tested ‘big-mammal focus ‘ on polar bears can only take us so far. I believe that in the UK awareness has largely been raised and the challenge now is to convert that into meaningful action. Games are deeply engaging and ‘gamification’ (which is the application of game design/elements/thinking to non-game situations) can appeal to human nature by making the best of our competitive and cooperative instincts, providing spaces where people can explore complex issues and opening people up to changing their values and beliefs in new ways.
As for innovation, sometimes to go forward you need to look in an entirely different direction and make a humble search for inspiration. Yes, climate change and sustainability are ‘serious’ issues but that is no reason why the solutions and the way we engage people should be dull or tiered. Gamification is a pretty new idea but its applications already span energy use, public campaigning and efficient driving. I’m confident that bold innovators will want to take these ideas forward and breathe new life into communicating sustainability. What a shame it would have been if this rich new approach had been dismissed because of its origin.
Olly completed the Business and Environment course at Imperial in 2011 and is currently working as a Communications Consultant specialising is Sustainability, Gamification and Behaviour Change.