Friday, March 16, 2007

Game Friday: Games that Make You a Better Person (Really!)

There's a lot of interesting gaming stuff going on since GDC and SXSW have just finished up, but this week, I want to focus on some gaming in the real world, with an environmental twist.

I read an article this week from Mother Jones about Wayne Gerdes, one of America's premier hypermilers, or folks who try to get really, really high mileage from their cars. In Wayne's case, it's a standard Honda Accord, in which he averages 69 miles per hour. He hasn't changed anything under the hood to accomplish this; he just drives in an extremely efficient manner.

Why does Wayne feel compelled to take 25 mph turns at 52 mph instead of hitting the brakes? He claims his initial interest was political (dependence on foreign oil), but soon enough, hypermiling became an addictive game. It all started when he drove his wife's SUV, which came with a fuel consumption display (fcd) that shows miles per gallon in real time. As the article says:
The fcd changed the driving game for Wayne. "It's a running joke," he says, "but instead of a fuel consumption display, a lot of us call them 'game gauges'"—a reference to the running score posted on video games—"because we're trying to beat our last score—our miles per gallon."
If you've ever driven a car with an fcd, you know what Wayne's talking about. Suddenly, fuel efficiency isn't just a calculation that happens at the gas station. It's the ultimate game: responsive, real-time, and the "points" you score have a real monetary--and environmental--value.

Wayne goes on:
"If the EPA would mandate fcds in every car, this country would save 20 percent on fuel overnight," he says. "They're not expensive for the manufacturers to put in—10 to 20 bucks—and it would save more fuel than all the laws passed in the last 25 years. All from a simple display."
This game matters. There are people posting photos of their fcd displays on the internet to brag about these high fuel efficiency scores. And the fcd phenomena is one that could easily apply to other situations. My gas bill was $600 in January. My six roommates and I put up plastic, wore sweaters, and stoked the fireplace, but we won't know until next week whether our efforts paid off on the Feb. bill. What if our "smart" thermometer, which lets us set different temperatures for morning, noon, and night, also recorded and reported how our gas use fluctuated throughout the day? Or what if our electrical devices told us how much power they consume? I'm pretty careful about unplugging my phone charger when it's not being used, but it would be a heck of a lot easier--and more exciting--if I could see my energy use report at the light switch. At my house, I'm sure it would lead to crazy competitions to see who could get the lowest usage--or, how we could spike the highest or drop the lowest. (At the place I'm moving to in CA, which is all solar power feeding DC batteries, you CAN watch the electricity usage... and play educational games as you switch on and off the lights.)

This doesn't have to be environmental in nature. In broad strokes, the fcd is just an gaming extension of life logging--passive data collection about all kinds of aspects of life. I have a friend with a GPS-enabled running watch that tracks his path, and then shows a little animation of an avatar representing him on his last run to "race" the same trail. You can sign up to track your web travels on Firefox in real time and get rated on different kinds of usage. And then there's Mindball, the competitive "how relaxed are you?" alpha brain waves game I always see at ASTC.

How could museums be part of this? Two ways immediately come to mind:
1. Be a leader and testing ground for people to explore these kinds of logging devices. There are lots of science museums with exhibits that provide simulations of exactly these phenomena. Turn on the light switch, the motor, and the buzzer and see how the voltmeter reacts. And there are also many museums touting their green architecture etc. Why not implement some of these real-time gaming mechanisms not as simulations, but as opportunities for guests to be aware of and log themselves through the museum? Give people pedometers so they can try to get the most steps through the place (or the fewest). Or, report on the exhibits themselves. This exhibit is using X mA of power right now... and now that you hit that button, it's a little higher. Or, sponsor some of these crazy game events--races to see who can maintain the highest mpg over a set path. Give people voice recorders and hold a contest to see who gives the most compliments over a weekend. Who drinks the most water. People are most excited about data collection when the data is about them. And if the games can raise awareness (and change behavior!) about their actions and interactions, even better.

2. Start developing these kinds of devices for sale. I could imagine museums being a hotbed for development of logging devices that make a game out of real life. That's what museum designers are doing all the time--trying to make games out of educational concepts and learning experiences. The fcd is such a simple and compelling game. What other games can we make out of our life experiences? Can museums lead the way in making these analogies--and the positive change (and dollars)--that comes with their execution?

1 comments, add yours!:

San Francisco Mobile Museum said...

Hi Nina, small world.

I'm going to try posting this again...

I'm working on a project for The Leonardo, a new sci/art museum in Salt Lake. We're looking at Lucid Desgin Group's "Building Dashboard" system which does this very thing. Check it out at:

Maria Mortati