Research: Using Video Games to Support Renewable Energy

Gaming has an important role to play in getting people to switch to renewable energy.

Changing over to using renewable energy, or using greener products, isn’t an easy thing to get people to do. Greenwashing is ineffective and feels forced; smart meters work for a while and then don’t anymore.  How do we encourage people to change their energy habits?

Lecturer Danielle Barrios-O'Neill, in collaboration with Alan Hook from Ulster University, developed a research paper since published in Futures, that makes the argument that gaming has a pretty big role to play in energy transitions. This is because gaming is one thing that encourages people to think about resources in terms of systems.

Using findings from a variety of research areas, from games studies to marketing to energy reports, we tried to isolate key ideas that hold true across the board for interaction design and energy use, and these are some of the most compelling things that we came up with:

  • Green-focused marketing only works on people who were already “green.”
  • As simulations of systems, games have the ability to get people to literally think different about how reality works.
  • Games are social, which means thinking about systems as social things (not just nuts and bolts, not just programs and machines). Energy, too, is a socially-embedded resource.
  • There are a LOT of ways for energy games to link with real-world data, especially through the Internet of Things.

What does this add up to? Basically, if harnessed in the right ways, games can be instrumental in cultivating more complex, more proactive behaviour around energy. Games help people visualise “the big picture” in surprisingly dynamic ways, and this can change how they behave in the real world (and has done).

The big question is who will develop the platforms for engaging consumers with games.

It helps that the “gamer” demographic (between 18 and 49, having some higher education) has a serious overlap with the demographic most likely to be open to new ideas and behavior changes around the environment, and technology. So, it’s a huge opportunity.

The big question is who will develop the platforms for engaging consumers with games. A few energy companies and independent game developers have made a start, but not many. The modus operandi for getting people to switch energy sources or buy green products continues to be education campaigns (which don’t work) and greenwashing (less effective every year).

It will be interesting to see what companies take the leap—whether it’s energy companies like the Big 6 who have some green products and the most capital to invest, smaller renewable companies looking to capture new markets, governments trying to meet renewables targets, or NGOs. Everybody has something to gain, it’s just a matter of who realizes the potential of games first and makes a substantial investment.