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Could a smartphone game really help us cut down on energy use?

Ah, the youth of today. They’ll spend ages having a hot shower. They’ll leave lights on when they exit a room and waste time staring at an open fridge, craving a midnight snack. We’re all guilty of bad habits – but apparently young people in particular guzzle more energy.

Young people in the UK are also disengaged and uneducated when it comes to knowing their energy bills: statistics from the Energy Savings Trust show that only 7 per cent of people under 35 understand theirs. Of the 2,000 customers surveyed, 82 per cent declared an interest in reducing energy and saving money, but simply don’t know how to go about it or what steps to take. Then again, with the majority of young people being renters it’s hard for them to have complete control over domestic energy use and take action that is beyond their tenancy agreement, such as insulating the loft.

So how do you solve a problem like excessive energy use and complicated energy bills? Smartphone games may seem a paradoxical solution, given that sizeable apps tend to drain battery life and therefore means the smartphone requires regular charging – but some cities are trying it, nonetheless.

The post-apocalyptic is in vogue right now, what with the finale of season 7 of The Walking Dead having recently aired, and the threat of a potential US-North Korea war looming large. So in Amsterdam and Grenoble, residents of all ages, but especially those aged 16 to 24, are being invited to play a post-apocalyptic game, the Age of Energy, where they have to rebuild a community following the world’s collapse.

Players are asked to manage resources and optimise virtual energy performance. For bonus points, they’re challenged to improve their own energy use. The app can be connected to a smart meters so it can access real-time data.

Of course, to benefit from the app one would need to have a smart meter in the first place. But the goal of the Dutch, French and British governments’ is to see most if not all homes fitted with one by 2020.

In a blog post, the game’s lead creator, Gerben Kijne, writes:

“It works on the hypothesis that if people can be encouraged to spend money in app-based games – plenty of us are guilty of exchanging a few pennies to get past a particularly tough level of Candy Crush – then why not see if you can use the same model to bring about positive real-world change.”

Kijne says that the game is designed with “a glass ceiling that cannot be broken unless you change your behaviour”. He says that these changes are something that people would probably be interested in making anyway: the app simply makes it easier to do so, by encouraging players to think about the impact their energy use is having on the urban environment.

This is more effective than simply rewarding them with arbitrary points as the game progresses, he adds, because then they wouldn’t be incentivised to maintain their behaviour changes once the rewards end. Psychological and behavioural research backs this up. The authors of Gamified Energy Efficiency Programs, a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy which analysed 22 energy-related games, argue:

“If we want people to save energy and to go on doing so after the game has ended, we need to stoke the fires of their intrinsic motivation, not simply give them things in exchange for their cooperation. We do not want people to save energy in order to get an extrinsic reward, however intangible, but to save energy because they have come to see it as intrinsically satisfying, meaningful, or enjoyable.”

The Age of Energy is still in pilot mode – Kijne says that some 500 people have signed up to play the game so far. But a similar pilot project in Brisbane suggests gamification can be effective. Last year it was revealed that a game played by 1,000 participants, Reduce Your Juice, saw average energy savings among low-income Australians under 35 of 12.3 per cent or around $220 (£129), with some saving more than $2,000 (£1,177).

Whether a post-apocalyptic smartphone game could have an impact on young people’s habits in the UK – and do for energy what Pokémon Go did for engaging with urban public spaces – is unknown. But at the very least it could help them prepare for any forthcoming nuclear winter.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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