If energy were chickens, every time someone left the lights on or kept their computers plugged in overnight, they would be looking at sickly, green-looking fowl. At least, that's the concept behind Energy Chickens, a game created by a group of researchers and developers at Pennsylvania State University.

Energy Chickens encourages people to keep their virtual chickens healthy by engaging in basic energy-saving behavior around the house. For every appliance a user has, he or she gets a chicken to look after. Happy chickens grow and lay eggs when users keep their energy consumption low. Those eggs can then be traded for market items, including stylish fedoras that the chickens can wear.

The idea driving developers to create games and apps to help people change their power-use behavior is simple: Making mundane things fun is an effective strategy to get people to cut down their usage. So when you turn off appliances, you can see your happy chickens come home to roost.

"Games are effective because they can be used for situated learning, where a player can be placed into a simulation of a real-world situation and see the impact of his or her actions over time," said Scott Nicholson, an associate professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies.

Getting people to change their behavior is difficult. Studies show that people are not very good at maintaining dietary changes or keeping to their New Year's resolutions. But if people were better at using less electricity, which accounts for 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, the potential for reducing emissions would be huge.

That's where games may have a niche. By turning daily activities into a game, a process called gamification, people can get rewards for making a change. Gamification can be anything from raising chickens to competitions between neighbors to getting positive feedback for sustainable actions on social media platforms.

A new study released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that gamification could encourage energy savings of 3 to 6 percent among large groups and as much as 10 percent in smaller groups.

Though many games and apps have been developed in recent years, there is room for growth. So far, gamification is great for small communities or individual companies, but the concept has a long way to go before it reaches the 648 million downloads that Angry Birds had in 2011.

Get a hangover from feedback
People get very little feedback about the direct consequences of leaving a light on when they leave a room or keeping their thermostat on high when they're not home. That's why Cool Choices, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, decided that getting whole communities involved in energy savings might be a good place to start.

The group approaches major companies and develops games where co-workers compete to save as much energy as possible. Employees are given points when they take action, like when they watch less TV, maintain appropriate car tire pressure or air seal their homes.

More than 4,000 people have played Cool Choice's games in 10 different companies. Winners are sometimes rewarded with cash prizes to incentivize actions.

"When people adopt simple practices, see their peers doing the same and then see how those simple actions add up, these folks feel empowered—they see themselves as part of a climate change solution and support additional action," said Kathy Kuntz, executive director of Cool Choices.

However, there are questions about whether strategies like competitive energy saving have long-lasting effects. Studies show that people maintain behavior changes as long as incentives are meaningful. Without a competition or cash prize as an end goal, it's possible that people will revert to their old energy consumption habits.

While this is a valid concern, it's not always a problem. To measure the impact of its games, Cool Choices went to visit people who had participated in its games one year later and found that former participants continued to have savings of 6 percent.

Why do some Americans switch off from switching off?
Part of that success is attributed to the fact that games simplify energy saving for people, said Kuntz. A lot of times, people are inundated with information about how to save energy, but it can get to be too much, and people often switch off. Cool Choices curates the number of energy saving options and gradually introduces them to players, so it becomes easier for people to change their actions. Players also learn strategies that they might not have known before.

"[Behavior change is] the fastest and cheapest way for us to achieve climate goals—simple changes at scale would yield tremendous savings," Kuntz added. "This is particularly true in the U.S. Our per-capita energy usage compared to Europe or Japan is embarrassing. We waste a tremendous amount of energy, and a good chunk of that is behavioral."

Social media allow people to get immediate feedback on their actions anytime they post a tweet or Facebook status update. That's why Grant Williard and his team at Cleanbit Systems Inc. developed JouleBug, an app in which people log their sustainable actions and get reactions from their social network.

"People regulate behaviors based on feedback from the immediate environment and from people around us," said Magnus Bång, a gamification expert from Linkoping University in Sweden. "For example, you don't get much negative feedback and learning if you litter the street; the street won't throw back the litter at you."

Through JouleBug, people get points for a number of actions, like using a reusable mug or grocery bag. Users build on their actions to receive trophies and share their accomplishments with their friends. They can also sign up for fee-based contests. By developing this feedback system, JouleBug hopes it will empower people to maintain sustainable behavior.

"We haven't figured out the secret sauce yet, but we're getting really close," said JouleBug founder Williard. "These little actions really add up to something that has value."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500