With the drive towards a more sustainable energy system, the perennial question facing utilities and retailers is how to incentive consumers to consider energy efficiency in their daily lives.
In-home displays, mobile and online apps and energy reports linked to bills, have all been tested with varying degrees of success. Building on the popularity of gaming and enabled by the rapid growth and capabilities of PC and mobile technologies, another option has emerged as a tool for consumer engagement - gamification.
Gamifying energy efficiency
Gamifying in the energy sector has been developing for several years but it is by no means mainstream and still something of a novelty.
With a call for innovative solutions for reducing energy consumption from the European Union (for its Horizon 2020 research programme), gamifying was an obvious option. It resulted in the EnerGAware project that has been designed to increase consumer understanding of energy efficiency. Consumption recorded by smart meters in consumers homes is gamified on mobile apps with the aim of reducing energy use.
“The idea was to prove that serious gaming works in this context,” says Ryan Granville, Project Head at French digital game developer FremenCorp, the company behind the formation of the initiative.
The target consumer group for the three-year project, commenced in February 2015, was social housing communities. Granville highlights that these were selected as they can have significant energy saving potential. They also offer the opportunity for fuel poverty reduction by improving understanding and engagement with energy efficiency.
Other participants in the project consortium have included UK energy provider EDF Energy, Spanish technology developer Advanticsys, the English social housing provider DCH and, as the academic partners, the University of Plymouth and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
The game that was developed is named EnergyCat. It features the central figure a smart cat as the ‘ruler’ of the home and providing commentary on what is happening as the game evolves. Players are able to freely customise their ‘home’ with appliances, furniture, insulation and decoration, with the focus on the energy impacts and they are assigned missions both within the home and those of neighbours.
“The aim is that players will want to play and to enjoy the game while learning from it,” says Granville, noting that the game development took about 18 months and it was in the players’ hands for a year.
Approximately 70 people participated in the project from a social housing scheme in Plymouth in southwest England, half as players and the other half comprising a control group. All of them also had smart meters and energy monitoring devices installed, with the data gathered primarily for project use but also available to interested players online.
Granville says the preliminary findings indicate that the people who played the game reduced their consumption over time relative to the control group, although the actual figures achieved and other points such as the sustainability of the savings were still under analysis (at time of writing, end March).
The intention is that as a fully developed game, EnergyCat will continue to be maintained and used by consumers. It is available as an app for download on the Android and Apple stores.
It also is intended to utilise the game code in the development of other games. One of these Granville mentions is Smartn, which has similarities to EnergyCat but is aimed to utilities or companies to offer to their customers in a branded format. For example, a utility could include its logo or an appliance manufacturer could incorporate their own products.
Another app is Ekosmart, which is being trialled with EDF in Montpellier in France. In this game, the degree of home customisation is limited compared to EnergyCat, but it is linked directly to the users’ Linky smart metering systems enabling them to visualise the impacts on their energy consumption on a weekly basis. The game also includes a neighbourhood level approach with management of multiple homes at the same time.
“Ekosmart is for all consumers from all backgrounds,” Granville says. “We believe there is potential to bring energy games to a wide audience of people in countries around the world.”
EnerGAware isn’t the only H2020 project developing gaming. Another is the ENTROPY project, in which gaming forms part of an “ecosystem” to engage consumers with their energy use and motivate behavioural change.
Gaming is also being applied in the water sector, with an example being the smartH2O project demonstrating its use in achieving water saving.
Among the findings from EnerGAware, Granville says the most important is the need to engage players with the game as early as possible in the development phase.
“One might think they understand what consumers want but it is essential to have a prototype that can be tested for feedback to adapt and refine it.”
This also can be important for user friendliness, as in the case with EnerGAware for consumers who weren’t familiar with gaming.
“We had to make corrections so that the community could understand EnergyCat. Games take a lot of trialling and adaptation to get right.”