Climate News

Games can Reach the Disengaged, Dismissive, and in Denial about Climate Change

Caroly Shumway, Ph.D., and Jonathan Kimball, Ph.D.

Some people may want to act with respect to climate change, but don't follow through. Others may dismiss or deny climate change. One way to reach both groups is through games, or gamification. Gamification is the application of game design elements—points, badges, leader boards, etc.—to typically non-game contexts.

Games comprise multiple tactics that are demonstrably effective at promoting behavior change, including social modeling, prompts, feedback, and rewards. Web and app-based games can significantly impact diverse behaviors such as recycling, energy use, water usage, etc. across diverse settings (households, offices, and school campuses).

Games may be particularly effective for the disengaged. Research suggests that gamification has the most significant impact among individuals who are otherwise unmotivated to demonstrate pro-environmental behavior (Schultz, 2014). The effectiveness of games for this audience may be because they are fun, competitive, and offer rewards: all features that are universally popular and apolitical.

How long can game-related behavior changes last? According to Schultz (2014), participants may revert to pre-game levels of behavior when no longer playing. At least two games, however, produced results that suggest this outcome is not inevitable. Cool Choices is a web-based game for teams to improve a variety of behaviors including usage of electricity, water, and heat, as well as choices of transportation, food, and waste management. Nearly 2000 participants in teams played for six months; the players' electricity consumption was measured over a subsequent 6-month period. Ro et al. (2017) reported that participants demonstrated 4% lower electricity usage during the follow-up period in comparison to control group households. Those with the highest energy usage before the study improved the most.

Energy Chickens targeted electricity conservation in an office environment (Orland et al., 2014). Game elements included visual feedback (e.g., chickens became more healthy when levels of savings were achieved), virtual rewards (e.g., healthier chickens produced more “eggs” that could be traded for barnyard accessories), and information about their competitors' performance. Posters prompted all office staff—not just game players—to “unplug” and “turn off.” During the 14-week game phase, average energy consumption declined 13%. Over the 8-week follow-up period, 66% of game players maintained consumption at a lower level, in contrast to the non-game players.


Games can also help us gain comfort and confidence in talking about climate change to our cranky uncle or friend who presents climate arguments denying or minimizing the problem.  Dr. John Cook of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication has developed a CrankyUncle iPhone/Android game that helps you identify logical fallacies in climate denier's arguments, and learn how to logically counter them. Learn how to recognize fake experts, logical fallacies, cherry picking, impossible expectations, and conspiracy theories, all while having fun doing it! 

Cook and coworkers recently compared the effectiveness of a logical versus fact-based approach (Vraga et al., 2020). The authors found that while both logic and facts can be effective, a logic-based approach has the advantage that it can be applied to diverse misinformation.

A word of caution: a gamification approach will work for some, but not all in the disengaged, dismissive, and in denial category.  Other approaches include social norms, framing the message to favored moral arguments, and using credible messengers. We'll talk about this in a subsequent column.

P.S. If you want to learn more about climate change, its impacts, and solutions, check out our free DiveDeeper courses. We've partnered with Dave Borlace's YouTube Channel Just Have a Think's to create brief courses on climate change to help individual learners and high school students learn more about climate facts. Dave's 100+ ten minute videos are a perfect vehicle for learning about all aspects of climate change, its environmental impact, and climate solutions. Our three brief DiveDeeper courses help you to retain the information you just learned; at least seven more courses are planned! Dave's also just created a Just Have a Think app which provides access to the videos as well as curated news and information to keep you informed. 

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