Gaming Our Way to Efficiency

January 09 2009 / by joelg
Category: Energy   Year: 2009   Rating: 3

By Joel Greenberg

Byron Reeves is a man with a vision:  using video games to teach and to help mold behavior. When we get a smart grid and smart devices that track and report on their energy consumption, we'll have the data we need to understand our energy usage in the home.  But will we really take advantage of that information?

Energy Efficiency Game

"Games have the potential change behavior," says Reeves a professor at Stanford University and co-founder of Stanford's MediaX; he conducts research on the emotional and social effects of immersive environments including complex online games . "I became interested in building a game platform that could change behavior around energy usage," he says.  To that end, he's been showing a vision video he created with Millions of Us in which he brings to life a game where homeowners compete with each other to see who can become the most energy efficient.

Once You Know How Energy Efficient You Are, Then What?

The game envisions a day when sensors are ubiquitous and devices report on their energy usage within a network. Players can join neighborhoods and compete as teams; real world neighbors can join together, but they don't have to.  A player living in New York could be part of a team that has members all over the world.

"It's the perfect alignment of personal involvement, feedback, and fun.  It's doing good by changing behavior," says Reeves, who is taking his cue from the impact of games like World of Warcraft, The Sims, and alternate reality games like World Without Oil.

Today, the only way to gauge energy usage in the home is with the utility bill that comes at the end of the month.  "Having feedback in multiple time domains is critical to jump-starting behavior change," says Reeves.  For many behaviors that time period needs to be shorter than 30 days in order to be effective.  How short?  "The time period is in the order of seconds," he says.

From Buckminster Fuller's WorldGame to Chevron's SimRefinery to the Wii Fit, games have been used in a variety of ways to create understanding and to change behavior in a way that passive learning can't.  With games, people are actively involved in decision making. Timely feedback allows them to see results of those decisions, which in turn influences future decisions.

Feedback Is The Key
A simple, yet compelling example of how immediate feedback can affect behavior regarding energy usage is the computer screen in the dashboard of the Toyota Prius.  For the first time in over 100 years of automobiles, drivers now have the information they need to optimize their behavior on something other than time or distance:  fuel efficiency.  The screen in the Prius provides the driver with real time fuel efficiency feedback.  While a new Prius owner may not pay much attention to the screen at first, over time, it catches their attention and Prius owners begin gaming the system to get the best gas milleage out of their vehicle as they can.  It's that immediate feedback that facilitates the behavior; and while they may not drive for maximum fuel efficiency all the time, they now have a choice to do so when they like.

Can we change our behavior?  Using games, some of us may.  While the game Reeves envisions doesn't exist, with the coming smart grid, it could. His and games like his may be used in the future to help us use the data coming out of the consumer facing applications that are being built by smart grid companies. These future games are one answer to the question, "But will we change our behavior in regards to energy usage?"  With feedback, that answer could well be "Yes."

[Note: to view the vision video contact Professor Byron Reeves at Stanford.  reeves -at- stanford -dot- edu]

Photo courtesy Byron Reeves.

Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. Joel, this is what Pliny Fisk has been talking about and working on for years:

    Posted by: jonl   January 11, 2009
    Vote for this comment - Recommend