Gaming the world: what hot showers teach us about games (?)

Last winter, I started keeping the drain closed in my bathtub when I showered. My initial reason for doing so (other than making my partner go “ewwww”) was to conserve energy by keeping the heat of the water inside the house until it had cooled off. Because hot water is a bigger component of household energy use than most electronic appliances, I thought this would reduce my carbon footprint more drastically than fluorescent light bulbs. (Utterly rational, yes, but nutty, I’ll admit). As it turned out, an unintended side effect of this (other than increasing the chance of mold in the bathroom) was to make me very aware of how much water I used each time I showered. And that, in turn, led me to cut back quite a bit on how long I would shower.*

Watching soapy water rise up to your ankles may not be the makings of a blockbuster game, but it struck me that feedback loops are essential to games. Slap a meter on something, and you’ve got the first component of a game. Consider the Prius’s MPG gauge and how it induces more efficient driving (some have even explicitly made the comparison to video games).

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s new book, Nudge (or essay version), suggests that appropriate feedback, when keyed to a social norm, can overcome humans’ innate irrationality and push us to better behavior. John Tierney of the New York Times has thrown out a challenge: can we create a “nudge” device that will lead us to be more green?

Tierney cites earlier musings by Clive Thompson that ambient information, shared over Facebook, might also generate a powerful push towards conservation.

My question is: Can we push past the “game-like” elements of these proposals and make them into full-out games? How would a game designer approach this challenge?

– Gene Koo

* -Actually, it led me to take “navy showers” and multi-stage navy showers (when shampooing + conditioning).