Bringing green games to the UW campus

Project Size: Large, >$1,000
Estimated Amount to be requested from the CSF: $16,028

Letter of Intent:

Project Summary

Over the past year, a team consisting of a researcher and multiple students within the College of the Environment conducted a feasibility study to evaluate the potential of using games to promote more sustainable actions on campus (i.e., “green games”). The feasibility study consisted of a review of existing games, holding a game jam, and a survey to assess receptiveness and preferences of the UW community around green gaming. The feasibility study resulted in many positive outcomes, including development of multiple sustainability game prototypes, creating connections in the sustainability and gaming communities (both within and outside of UW), and measuring interest and preferences related to different types of green games across the UW community.

The feasibility study identified opportunities as well as challenges related to implementing green games on campus. The opportunities include substantial interest in environmentally-themed games across diverse demographics (age, area of study, student/staff/faculty status) at UW, the potential to create games with powerful messages using moderate resources, and potential to partner with industry, non-profits, and other universities that are interested in using games to promote sustainability.

Leveraging these opportunities, however, will require overcoming several challenges also identified in the feasibility study. The first of these is healthy skepticism, particularly of digital games, which may be seen as antithetical to environmental or sustainability issues due to interfering with time in nature, being overly monetized, or even addictive. A second – and greater – challenge for implementing games to promote sustainability is competing in the “attention economy”, which includes a large marketplace of games for the purpose of making money. Environmental games geared toward raising awareness and promoting behavior changes have to compete with a well-financed industry vying for players. Finally, there are still important unknowns with respect to using games to promote sustainability, namely demonstrating links between gameplay and willingness of players to actually modify future behavior.

The feasibility study also evaluated a range of incentives that made students, staff, and faculty more likely to engage with green games; somewhat surprisingly, competition and personal rewards were ranked as only moderately important. In contrast, realizing an environmental benefit and cooperation with other people were ranked as some of the most interesting potential game features. This and other information gained from the feasibility study places us in an excellent position to develop games that are more likely to appeal to a broad cross-section of the UW community and have effectively raise awareness or create changes in behavior over time.

As a result of conducting the feasibility study, this team is ready to implement a project that 1) creates and tests games related to multiple environmental issues, 2) tracks individual feedback and responses to link gameplay with changes in awareness and behavior, and 3) shares knowledge and establishes partnerships with other universities and colleges to help develop or use green games on their campuses.

Methods and Outcomes

Engagement with the UW community will be primarily through the creation of four short, topical games that address environmental issues where students can have a positive impact through individual behavior change (e.g., water use, energy use, plastic reduction). These four games will be developed specifically for use on gaming stations that will be temporarily deployed (i.e., for 2-3 weeks at a time) in 4-6 high traffic areas on campus where the UW community can access them. Creating the kiosks as mobile stations will allow us to move them to different parts of the campus, maximizing accessibility and exposure. The UW community will be able to access the kiosks spontaneously and on their own; however, we will also conduct focused email, flyer, and social media campaigns on campus during the period that the kiosks are up with an incentive offered (e.g., having name put in a drawing for a gift card) to those who participate by playing through and giving feedback on at least one of the games.

One of the project goals is to assess the impact of different games on environmental awareness and potential to motivate behavior change over time, so the kiosk and games will be arranged to provide feedback and track responses. A player will be presented with a choice of the four games on different topics and choose one to start; this will result in information on whether certain topics are more attractive than others to players. After playing through the game, players will be asked to give some rapid feedback on how engaging the game was and how much their knowledge of the topic improved (i.e., Did awareness increase?). At this point, players will be given a short list of potential actions that they can elect to take around this issue; the choices will range from simple to more involved, such as a simple pledge to reduce consumption/use vs. opting to have additional information and actions emailed to them (i.e., Can games impact motivation and behavior?). The player can then elect to play through another short game or end the session and be entered into a drawing. Players will be required to give a UW email address for entry into the drawing, creating the potential to re-survey players at a later date.

Although we are designing this project to gain information that can guide development of future games, players will have little experience of being a “research subject”. The feedback sections will be designed to be short, engaging, and positive, and as a natural follow-on to the environmental games. One of the results of the feasibility study was that people are very interested in contributing to research via gaming approaches, so we anticipate that opportunities to give feedback will actually encourage more people to participate and play the kiosk games than otherwise.

Following the active period during which we are pushing traffic to kiosks, the gaming kiosks will be available as a temporary, interactive sustainability exhibit at locations around the UW campus (e.g., The Burke Museum) and/or during special events (e.g., UW’s Sustainability Festival). We are currently and would continue to reach out to partners on campus that could make use of this type of exhibit.

Outreach and Partnerships

Based on contacts, interest, and feedback from the game jam and gaming survey from other universities and non-profit partners, we believe that there is widespread interest in this topic, and strong potential to partner with other universities to create campus-focused games that promote and encourage sustainability. For this reason, one of our major goals for this project is to produce results, information, and products that can help guide efforts or even be directly used at other campuses. We have therefore developed a focused plan to reach out and establish these partnerships:

  1. We are currently working to publish the results of the literature/gaming review, game jam, and survey as a short peer-reviewed (target journal: International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education) or popular magazine article (e.g., UW Columns). Publishing these results will be an important step in establishing credibility and communicating the potential for green games for other universities and colleges across Washington State.
  2. We will use our results to reach out to campus sustainability units and faculty at Washington State colleges and universities, and invite partnerships to work together to implement gaming projects in other locations. Some of the opportunities for partnership include conducting a game jam elsewhere, replicating the green gaming survey, and/or temporarily installing the gaming kiosks at another university campus.
  3. We are currently working with multiple research groups on campus and non-profit agencies interested in using games to promote conservation (e.g., UW’s Freshwater Initiative, Cascade Water Alliance, The Nature Conservancy). These partners are willing to consult on design and development of topical environmental games for the kiosks, with the goal of repurposing some of the games afterwards to help advance their own conservation efforts. 

The Team

The project will be led by an enthusiastic and highly capable team. Lauren Kuehne is a Research Scientist at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, working on diverse issues of ecology, conservation, and innovative science communication. She led the recent year-long feasibility study to evaluate use of games to promote sustainability, a project that has delivered on all project outcomes while using only half of the total project budget. Cailin Winston is a sophomore at the UW that is majoring in biochemistry and currently considering a double major in computer science. She has a passion for tackling environmental issues and loves to come up with creative solutions to problems. Caleb Winston is currently a high school senior that will enter the UW in fall of 2018 with the intention of majoring in Computer Science. He has already developed and published a number of apps and games for the web, iOS, Android, and Amazon Echo/Alexa, including a recycling app (Sorted, available on multiple app stores). He has participated in multiple game jams including the world's largest, the Ludum Dare competition, where his entry was among the top 100 highest rated games internationally. Cailin and Caleb together participated as a team in the recent UW Sustainability Game Jam and created a game about electronic waste (Salvage), which won first place.

How this project meets the requirements and preferences of the Campus Sustainability Fund

  1. Environmental Impact

Environmental impact comes down not only to the actions that individuals make in any given day or time, but their willingness and commitment to practice sustainable behaviors over time, advocate for sustainability in their community or government, or even apply their professional skills and ingenuity to sustainability problems. As such, we believe that - by allowing people to connect with environmental issues in positive, creative ways – games can help people overcome despair that stands in the way of action. This project is about testing how games can create a diverse access to more sustainable actions and behaviors by a community to ultimately reduce impact in areas such as energy and water conservation, waste reduction, and pollution.

  1. Student Leadership & Involvement

The project is co-designed and led by two undergraduate students who have already demonstrated extensive leadership and skills in addressing environmental sustainability through the innovative use of apps and games. Although both undergraduate leads are already highly accomplished in designing games and applying research-based approaches to sustainability efforts, this project will offer added, professional opportunities to develop their management, development, and leadership skills by producing highly tangible and published outcomes (e.g., games, articles/publications). In addition, we will continue to partner with student groups on campus that can contribute to project goals and outcomes. RSOs and student groups with whom we have worked during the feasibility study include UW GameDev Club, Husky Gamer Nation, UW Earth Club, UW SEED, Green Greeks, EcoReps, UW Bothell Sustainability Club, and the Sustainability Action Network. Students in these groups have contributed by volunteering, allowing us to present at club events or classes, participating in the game jam as developers and volunteers, and helping promote events and surveys.

We will also pursue opportunities to involve students in game development (e.g., students in the Earthgames class, Game Dev Club), beta-testing (Game Dev Club, HCDE Peeps), or in the gaming-impact evaluation stage (e.g., Information School or Program of the Environment capstone programs). One student group that has already committed to this project is UW’s Freshwater Initiative, a graduate student collective that spearheads research and outreach related to freshwater conservation; Freshwater Initiative is very interested in assisting in developing and promoting a game related to water quality and conservation.

In short, as with the feasibility study, the project is designed to create meaningful opportunities for students to contribute, lead, and develop their own ideas and initiatives related to green games.

  1. Education, Outreach, & Behavior Change

The main focus of the project is to develop games related to environmental topics where individual behavior changes can have a big impact. The games will be distributed on campus using mobile kiosks that maximize exposure; the games will not only serve to educate players but will also help us collect information about how games can link to changes in awareness, motivation, and behavior. Following the active kiosk period on campus, the kiosks and four games can be repurposed for use as temporary sustainability exhibits as well as use by non-profit partners in their conservation efforts. Results and products will be produced in ways that are readily shared with other colleges and universities for use in their campus community to promote sustainability.

  1. Feasibility, Accountability, & Sustainability

Collectively, the team has all of the skills and expertise needed to effectively implement this project. Lauren Kuehne is a Research Scientist and a highly accomplished project manager with a strong history of collaborating with diverse academic and non-profit partners. As such, Ms. Kuehne would manage project outcomes and provide logistical support (e.g., apply for in-kind donations, permits), design response-impact surveys for games, and ensure all quality and research standards (e.g., human subjects research review) are met. Ms. Kuehne would also be in charge of reaching out to other colleges and universities, reporting/publications, and working with academic and non-profit partners. Cailin Winston is a biochemistry major with strong public communication skills, as well as creative talents in game design. Cailin will assist with project management, communication, and game design. Caleb Winston is an incoming UW student (CS major) with highly advanced skills in programming apps and games for both web and mobile platforms. Caleb will lead the creative and technical process of game development.

Project Timeline: July 2018 – July 2019

Budget: Our final requested budget will depend on some factors that can’t be confirmed yet. One of these would be a decision of the Campus Sustainability Fund to allow us to rollover approximately $2,900 remaining in our budget from the feasibility study. If CSF allows us to use these remaining funds, the total additional requested for this project would be $16,028. However, this amount includes $3,000 in computer and technology costs (large tablet computers, a game development computer, cloud storage) that may be available through alternative avenues such as the Student Technology Fund, UW IT’s Cloud Computing Research Credits, and the Student Technology Loan Program. We are working to confirm the feasibility of using these alternative resources. The requested budget range is therefore $13,028 - $18,928.

Primary Contact: Lauren Kuehne, lkuehne@uw.edu

Primary Contact First & Last Name: Lauren Kuehne