Sustainable Opportunities Summit ’12: Sustainable Behavior Change? Aaron Dignan Says, Game On.

aaron dignan

Note: For the past six months the GoGreen Conference has been engaged with CORE, a fantastic non-profit in Colorado working to advance a coalition of sustainable businesses within the region, to produce the 2012 Sustainable Opportunities Summit. We have been lucky enough to interview some of the incredible speakers on this year’s Summit line up and are distributing them here for you to enjoy & learn from. 

Aaron Dignan believes that games can fundamentally change how we work, act and play — essentially making us more productive, motivated and happier at the same time. He also argues that gaming concepts have the power to change our behavior in ways that many other systems have failed. For sustainability advocates this an idea with huge potential. It’s no secret that behavior change from our earth damaging habits to more sustainable ones has been hard to come by in the mainstream. In this interview, the Undercurrent Founder/CEO and author of the book Game Frame tells us what’s on the horizon & just how powerful these ideas really are.

Sustainable Opportunities Summit: How great is the potential impact of gamification within the realm of sustainability? What kind of problems can it help us solve?

Aaron Dignan: The potential for games to impact our behavior can’t be overstated. Gamification for sustainability could help us crowdsource solutions to complex problems, or simply change our behavior and choices on an individual level. Home power consumption compared to neighbors and peers on your bill is one promising area.

SOS: Why is gamification so effective in generating a shift towards greener behavior where governments, incentives, the media, dire & conclusive reports, branding & advertising — even good ol’ fashioned common sense — have failed?

AD: People have to be motivated to engage with an idea. Most sustainability messaging is about reduction – have less, do less, get less. By bringing elements of competition, creativity, and luxury into the mix, that message can be more like: achieve more.

SOS: Is the effect based in a social construct of our culture? Or are most human beings wired to respond to the allures of games across the board?

AD: Our hardwiring for games goes far beyond our culture. The basic wetware of the human brain is structured to crave, to chase (and be chased), to explore the world around us looking for rewards. The very idea of a game is just an emergent manifestation of our basic nature.

SOS: What are some of the coolest ways you have seen gamification principles applied for sustainability’s sake?

AD: The visual feedback (and automation) of the Nest thermostat is impressive. It learns your preferences, programs itself and then helps you save energy with a simple display. You can also access it from your computer or mobile device and control the temperature of your home from afar.  The EcoDrive visual inside some of Ford’s vehicles is also very effective.

SOS: Any major sustainability projects you’re dying to see gamification elements added to? Why would it be so rad (and effective!)?

AD: I’d love to see carbon feedback on every receipt. Imagine seeing the carbon impact of a burger vs. a taco. How might we all adjust our behavior if we had that information at our fingertips?

SOS: How can businesses adopt this strategy for internal sustainability programs (as opposed to consumer facing projects)? Could you provide a couple of examples (real or potential) where gaming could make a big difference in the success of a program?

AD: Simple ways to begin: put up a scoreboard. Show how each department is performing vs. the average. Ensure that everyone is building new skills as part of the initiative — learning is key to play. Set goals at different levels and challenge everyone to unlock the next one. Make high performance in the initiative equal social status and access — to a special monthly meeting for instance or some other reward.

SOS: How does the concept of adding a gaming layer into our work apply to small businesses or non-profits — organizations that might not have the resources to hire an expert or build out an app for their team? Are there simple ways to enact the concept without needing to build out a massive, technical infrastructure?

AD: Manufacturing facilities have simply written the number of pieces they produced on the floor with chalk before the next shift comes in. Something as simple as that challenge works. You don’t need an iPad app to incorporate the concepts.

SOS: Do you believe gamification is a silver bullet of sorts for behavior change, or are their limits to its effectiveness? If so, what are they and how can organizations mitigate the challenges?

AD: It’s only as good as its design and follow through. Games need to be play-tested, and they need to be expanded over time. Design something. Test it. Watch it. Change it. Think of a game as a behavioral EQ that you need to tune constantly. It’s not every really done.

SOS: Talk to us about “flow activities” and why achieving a balance between challenges and our capability to meet them is important. How does this play out in a situation where broad behavior change is being pursued, but different categories of ability are present within a population? Should we, in essence, be thinking in terms of creating levels or stages of behavior modification in order to affect both the long-tail and the mainstream?

AD: Everyone needs to be challenged according to their ability, yes. The most important thing is moving forward — a rate of improvement. If everyone does a little better every month, then it doesn’t matter whether you have a big or small footprint. They’re all getting smaller.

Aaron Dignan is the CEO of Undercurrent and the author of Game Frame. He will also give a special presentation on the concept of gamification as applied to sustainability at the 2012 Sustainable Opportunities Summit. To learn more or to register, visit:

One response to “Sustainable Opportunities Summit ’12: Sustainable Behavior Change? Aaron Dignan Says, Game On.

  1. Reblogged this on The View from C-Level and commented:
    This session held by Aaron Dignan (@aarondignan) was a great TED-like presentation on the human nature of gaming and what gamification can do to things such as sustainability programs. Game on indeed!

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