Thursday, 8 August 2013

Playing with Energy

The Technology Strategy Board’s Smart Power Collaboration Nation event last month demonstrated much excitement about using game technology to promote domestic energy saving. Two kinds of game were discussed. But neither kind can entirely succeed, for each has its own inescapable limitations.
Ewan Lamont of Legendary Games told the story of the train drivers on a trans-pennine express service, who had been provided with fuel economy displays. The drivers invented a simple real-world game of comparing who could use least fuel. The rewards to the players were the fun of the challenge of driving economically, and the social fun of a light-hearted competition with their colleagues.

Legendary Games sought to encourage householders into similar competitions, by providing the means of comparing one household’s energy economy with others; a classical example of gamification. But scoring points and comparing scores isn’t enough to make a game appealing. As James Carse observed, ‘It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely’. Freedom to play (or not to play) is of the essence. The train drivers, who had no direct economic stake in their fuel economy, were free to play or not to play. But already for many households’ energy management, that freedom of choice isn’t available. Many millions of UK households are already in fuel poverty, for them, energy economy isn’t ever going to be a game. As energy costs rise in the coming years, domestic energy economy will only be a game for a wealthy minority: for the fuel-poor, gamification of energy economy would be irrelevant and insulting.

A very different kind of game was brilliantly presented by Nalin Sharma of Video Mind Games. Nalin’s game ‘Smart Energy Tower Defense’ [sic] was a visually appealing shoot-em-up, where the user’s task is to prevent little ‘bots from getting at a number of household appliances. The score for doing so depends on the power rating of the appliances, and so the game teaches which appliances consume the most energy.

This imaginary-world game was immediately engaging for a geek like me, but almost all of its attraction was in the artificial world of the computer game. I would expect that kind of game to succeed or fail almost purely on its strengths as a computer game. Computer games are created in great numbers, but only a very few of them are taken up in a significant proportion of households. And even those few rarely manage to maintain their market presence without a stream of upgrades.

So is domestic energy economy something that people will really want to play at? And will popular success ever come to an energy economy teaching game? Commercial games developers will have a go, but still, I doubt that gaming will really be an effective way to manage domestic energy demand.

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