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Dr Paula Owen ‘Eco Gamification’ Interview

Gamification is a hot-topic in the world of business and consultancy.

From Starbucks issuing unique FourSquare badges to customers that check-in regularly to educational sites such as Codecademy structuring their programmes around levels and badges, the application of game-thinking and game-mechanics to non-gaming environments is truly beginning to take-hold.

So has gaming finally come of age? Is this a watershed moment in the on-going maturity of the medium or just a fashionable phrase in the short-term?

Dr Paula Owen clearly believes that gamification is here to stay. An environmental and sustainability specialist with two decades of professional experience; Paula has a PhD in Climate Chemistry from the University of Oxford as well as a Masters Degree in Information Science from City University, London.

Serious credentials for a serious endeavour: the marriage of gamification with environmental awareness under the fledgling umbrella of Eco-Gamification.

Fresh from launching her most recent research project at the Science Museum as part of Climate Week, Paula takes some time-out to speak to VoxelArcade about this unexpected allegiance between environmentalism and gaming.

Many thank for taking the time so speak to us, Paula! I guess that the most obvious question is: would you call yourself a gamer or has your work with gamification changed your opinions of gaming and gamers at all?

Funnily enough, no, I would not define myself as a ‘gamer’ in the modern sense of the word at all. I come from an environmental background and a long professional interest in behaviour change, so I came to the whole topic of gamification from that specific angle rather than from a games-related angle. To tell the truth, I’ve never played any of the popular computer games such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. I guess in the past, before getting interested in what gamification could do to help educate and change behaviours, I was probably quite dismissive of online games. I’ve always loved traditional offline games however, and more recently have been known to dabble in a game (or a hundred!) of the Scrabble against the computer.

The last couple of years have made me re-assess my view of games and gaming completely though. I now am a great believer in the power of using gaming elements to help make learning fun but I still don’t think you would be able to tempt me with a game of COD!

Eco Gamification Screenshot # 1

Although the term was only coined in 2002 by the British programmer Nick Pelling, do you see gamification as something that reaches much further back into our history and, if so, where would you say its true origins lay?

Even though the term was invented some time ago, I think from a business application perspective the history is much shorter. It seems to have really made its breakthrough in 2010 and it’s really only in the last few years that non-gaming, environmental and sustainability professionals have started to prick up their ears and take notice.

But, of course, the idea of using fun, play and games to aid education goes back decades, if not millennia. I am a believer of the idea there is nothing much new under the sun any longer, and most things are just a re-invention or re-imagining of things that have gone before.

Given the somewhat low-brow reputation that gaming is yet to shake-off fully, any form of gamification is bound to raise the eyebrows of at least some policy makers. Is this something that you have experienced and if so, what more can be done to broaden the popularity and acceptance of gaming and gamification?

Absolutely, and there are plenty of sceptics and nay-sayers to the idea that it can be used to help move the sustainability engagement agenda forward. There is currently no strong, longitudinal evidence of its usefulness yet either as it has such a short history in the sector. But this is exactly what I am trying to assess with my research project. I’m attempting to gather quantitative as well as qualitative data to ascertain whether this approach has any merit or not.

So it’s a case of watch this space!

Eco Gamification Screenshot # 2b

It could be argued that the natural competitiveness that’s inherent in humans is what has driven the planet to the environmental brink that it now faces. If gamification taps into these same instincts, how do we square that circle in years to come or do we simply learn how to best channel our energies?

That’s a really good question, and you are right: competitive spirit and the desire to accumulate wealth and ‘stuff’ is a very big driver in the development of the consumerist society (at least in the West) that we find ourselves in today.

But what I hope is we can turn this competitive spirit to be a power for good, as Jane McGonigal argues so eloquently in her book ‘Reality is Broken’. This book was an inspiration to me and is packed full of really good examples how harnesses that competitive spirit can be used for good.

Over the last generation, gaming has evolved from closet-hobby to accepted topic of conversation in homes and offices up and down the country. To what degree do you feel that this has impacted upon gamification as a workable practice?

A large degree indeed! I’m finding that the workplace and the training environment in particular is very much more open to exploring and experimenting with new, innovative and even fun ways of training staff. I use games and other light-hearted fun in my employee engagement training programmes and find they are a great way to break-up what can be rather intensive ‘chalk and talk’ aspects of the day. People love to ‘have a go’ at a game, and to beat ‘the guy from accounts’ at Eco-Action Trumps, for example.

Gamers are not exactly known for their environmental awareness with the very hobby itself consuming vast amounts of energy and resources on an arguably wasteful activity! If eco-gamification as a concept takes root and drives positive change, how do you see this ‘coming home’ and affecting positive changes within the gaming community?

I’m not sure about this one! My gamification solutions are, currently, all offline, mainly because I haven’t the resources to create digitised versions, so the games we engage with are relatively low- impact. Also, I’m not sure gaming is a hugely environmentally damaging activity anyway, as its mainly just electricity to power the computer that is consumed. If gamers switched to renewable sources and/or generated their own power then it would be quite a benign activity from an environmental point of view.

But, seriously: if we can fit an environmental message in to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in the future, then I think we will have scored an epic win!

With sincerest thanks to Dr Paula Owen for taking the time to speak to VoxelArcade!

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  1. Very interesting

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