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Gamifying Power Saving

Gamifying Power Saving

I came upon a great concept a while back which explored the gamification of power savings. It’s called ‘Power House’ and its premise is rather simple, with some positive results on reducing domestic power usage. However it left me wondering if it was a great solution to the wrong problem. Let me explain.

The approach to ‘Power House’ is very straightforward. People playing the game explore a virtual representation of a home while doing the everyday things that make up life, like food preparation, using the facilities available in the house. The players control which appliances are on or off and take care of the needs of an ever-increasing number of family members. 

The Power House app

The Power House app

In controlled labratory settings, participants who played the ’Power House’ game turned off an average 2.55 appliances (versus 0.55 appliances for those that played a time management game ‘Dinner Dash’) after completing the game. The interesting twist though is that the appliances the players turned off were real ones within the laboratory environment. This was purely a result of the players’ own iniative; there was no instruction left other than that they should play for a period of time, shut the office and leave.  

These positive changes in behaviour were enough to encourage the experimenters to try a real field test. In real life, the game was effective, but with a reduced effect, creating only a 2% decline in power use while playing ‘Power House’. Less then the lab setting, but at scale, it could be a non-trivial amount. 

However, here is where my thinking takes a turn. While I accept the benefits of gamifying everyday behaviours, I’m not sure that a separate game, sitting in a separate context, is the right way to approach the problem of power consumption. This approach relies on behavioural transferance between the game and the real world houshold full of electricity-hungry appliances. 

I’m more interested how the gamification could be included directly into a household environment, either as a seperate device or on an activated mobile so that the gamification within the actual home itself. If tied to realtime electricity usage, it could shorten the delay between a starting behaviour (using electricity) and the desired behaviour (reducing electricity). That could be interesting.

Here is also a bigger problem, and by that I mean a much bigger problem. If we step back and look at the bigger ecosystem of power usage across an entire country (e.g the United States), what do you think we see? 

US Energy Flow Usage for 2017 (from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and The US Department of Energy)

US Energy Flow Usage for 2017 (from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and The US Department of Energy)

For a start, if residential energy is the focus of energy savings, then we are dealing with a total usage of 10.7 quads (for reference, one quad is equivilent of 36,000,000 tonnes of coal). Yet, this is actually a small amount when compared to the distribution of energy usage across the rest of the system. What about industrial usage and transportation? If we we wanted to make an impact on energy use, what if we could halve private car usage? Transportation amounts to 28.1 quads. Easily double that of residential use.

Then, there is another question that comes to mind at another strategic level. Set aside for a moment actual energy usage. If you take a closer look at the flow usage, there is an ominous grey outflowing coming out of each of the sections of usage. The grey outflow is not energy used, it is energy wasted. Look at how much energy is unused coming out of the process. You could fit all of the residential energy use into the energy wasted six times. Why are we not targeting that?

I realise these questions trail a long way from ‘Power House’, but that is actually the point. If we want to make a big impact, isn’t it better to try to find 2% savings out of a different part of the electricity system, like reducing how much electricity is wasted. Focusing on a different part of the system doesn’t mean it is foolish to try to get residential households to save more. I think the idea behind ‘Power House’ is noble and wonderful. But I just don’t want to sweep the really large losses (and potential savings) under the carpet while doing so. 

References

https://www.fastcompany.com/3040083/this-addictive-game-could-save-you-money-on-your-next-utility-bill

US Energy Flow Usage for 2017 from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and The US Department of Energy. https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/images/energy/us/Energy_US_2017.png

Electric Meter Photo by Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash.

Reeves, B., Cummings, J. J., Scarborough, J. K., & Yeykelis, L. (2015). Increasing Energy Efficiency With Entertainment Media: An Experimental and Field Test of the Influence of a Social Game on Performance of Energy Behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 47(1), 102–115. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916513506442

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