University of Washington Campus Sustainability Challenge: Feasibility and Design

Estimated Amount to be requested from the CSF: $7,000

Letter of Intent:

More than ever, the onus is on individuals to identify and solve the sustainability challenges we face, while solutions to environmental problems will continue to be interdisciplinary and complex. We therefore need ways to integrate technological, economic, and social expertise across all disciplines, and gather the attention and ingenuity of all people. We believe that web or app-based games have a unique and enormous potential to help address this need across diverse user groups and geographic areas. Games offer an efficient package to educate and promote long-term sustainable behaviors, and can reach broad audiences. They are also interactive and fun, offering an alternative to a “doom-and-gloom” approach that can lead to apathy for conservation and sustainability. When played by large groups, games offer a pathway for individuals to collectivize not only their actions, but also their awareness of and attention to problems; that collective focus is a powerful source of long-term solutions. This is our vision.

Most app or web-based games are developed with one goal: to get many people to buy it. Games around social change have other goals, including delivering information, connecting groups, or encouraging new behaviors. Knowledge of how to design these kinds of games is not currently well developed, and needs to draw information from the fields of psychology, game science, computing, education, and conservation. Furthermore, for games to be impactful requires not only that people play them, but also that the design is tailored with producing certain outcomes. These potential outcomes are diverse and could include educational metrics (e.g., player knowledge about climate change), conservation outcomes (e.g., reduced water use in a dorm), or long-term behavioral change (e.g., increased bussing or biking).

Our proposed project is to conduct a feasibility and design study for an app-based (or mobile-friendly website) environmental challenge game that educates incoming student cohorts about sustainable practices on and around the UW campus. The challenge game that we envision will orient new students to the sustainability resources in their new community, and create incentives and rewards (tangible and otherwise) for taking actions and adopting behaviors that conserve resources. We believe a temporary game or challenge will be most impactful, but the end goal is to influence behavior during the entire time a student is at UW.

Although we have the knowledge and technological capacity to create a game right away, gaming and computer science professionals agree that a feasibility study that includes some creation of prototypes are critical to improving player participation and outcomes. Design options for games are vast, and even slight differences may propel a game to widely-played success or relegate it to obscurity; we are also still at the frontier of understanding what motivates people to play a game with sustainability outcomes. Furthermore, a feasibility study will allow outreach and pre-collaborations with other sustainability efforts across campus (e.g., Earth Day events), programs that could contribute expertise (e.g., Human Centered Design and Engineering), and local businesses. The point of a feasibility study is to take advantage of the creative potential on campus to explore and develop options that would best engage new students; however, some of our prospective design ideas include:

  • A weeklong carbon reduction challenge between University of Washington and Washington State University (or UW Seattle, Bothell, and Tacoma campuses)
  • A series of challenge-based activities that students can engage in for incentives or rewards at local and campus businesses
  • A competitive scavenger hunt during Dawg Daze that orients students to campus sustainability options and needs

The feasibility study will consist of meeting four objectives: 1) a review of existing environmental games or challenges (digital or otherwise), 2) a weekend-long Game Jam to engage students and staff across campus in creating multiple game prototypes, 3) multiple student focus groups or surveys to gain feedback on the game prototypes, and 4) creation of a formal business plan to develop and implement a final game design in a future project. The business plan will include recommendations for optimal designs based on the Game Jam and student focus groups, a timeline to implement a game within the UW academic year, projected costs, and how success of the challenge would be measured. Results of outreach with campus groups, departments, and the business community would be integrated into the business plan as well.

The feasibility study will be led by an enthusiastic and highly capable team. Lauren Kuehne is a Research Scientist at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, who has been fascinated with the potential for gaming applications to environmental problems and has been developing this idea for many years. Rachel Lee is a graduate student at the Information School as well as a professional artist. William Chen is a graduate student in the Quantitative Ecology and Resource Management Program, who is also deeply involved in innovative science communication. Rachel and William were both part of the 2015 UW team that developed a nationally recognized climate change board game, “AdaptNation”. All three project leads are part of the EarthGames ( group at UW, which supports students in developing environmentally-based games. The project leads will bring their collective expertise in communication, design, research, and project management to meet objectives and create deliverables.

We believe the University of Washington is an ideal place to develop this innovative concept. Regionally, we have access to immense expertise in computing and game design, as well as experts in relevant fields of psychology, education, and engineering. UW is also well recognized for sustainability efforts across many different programs. We believe that students, faculty, and staff would be eager to participate in designing, developing, and (ultimately) participating in an innovative sustainability challenge, which could easily serve as a model for other university campuses.

Primary Contact First & Last Name: Lauren Kuehne