XXII.1 January + February 2015
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Play it seriously: Fostering innovative engagement with sustainability

Nassim Jafarinaimi, Eric Meyers

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During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama quipped in a debate-preparation session: "Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f—ing changed lightbulbs in my house. It's because of something collective" [1]. This candid quote illustrates the discursive tension around environmental sustainability: Though there is a sense that each of us needs to be personally engaged with issues of energy use and climate change, isolated individual actions are insufficient to address challenges that exist on a global scale. In the Anthropocene Age, when it is impossible to deny that humans are having a significant effect on the Earth and its viability for life, we need strategies that draw on collaborative endeavors to address problems at the societal and policy levels. Against this backdrop, we and many others in the HCI community feel a sense of responsibility to design approaches to sustainability that bring together the individual and collective, the short-term and long-term, to innovatively engage with the difficult work of creating sustainable futures.

This forum responds to one of the challenges put forward by Silberman and colleagues in the September – October 2014 issue of Interactions, where they discuss the next steps for sustainable HCI [2]. This challenge may be framed as follows: What are the form and quality of environments that foster innovative and grounded engagement with wicked problems such as sustainability? In response, we propose that social games designed to foster engagement with issues of sustainability may be a source of insight. Many such games have been designed in recent years, positioned as sites of sustainability discourse and as spaces to collectively envision approaches to sustainability problems. Close reading of the visual and discursive elements in these games reveals how the environmental, economic, social, and political dimensions of sustainability are characterized in popular discourse. Moreover, these games can be seen as prototypes that enable researchers to study patterns of social interaction and group dynamics at small scale. For example, and as we will illustrate here, we might study the mechanics of social games (e.g., problem framing or feedback mechanism) and their relation to the players' responses and interactions to gain insight into the systemic and infrastructural issues in other social spheres (such as the HCI discipline).

back to top  Insights


Here, we present our recent analysis of World Without Oil (WWO), an alternate reality game played online and in the physical world by hundreds of participants in the spring of 2007 [3]. Designed by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal, WWO was intended to foster conversations and develop collective approaches to sustainability through a simulation of a "peak oil" event, encouraging participants to record their imagined experiences with the premise that the price of gasoline had tripled overnight [4]. We re-created the collective narrative of WWO—the 1,554 emails, blog entries, phone calls, and video contributions available on the game archive—as a relational database. This allowed our research team to make retrospective sense of the game by analyzing patterns of play and participation. Our findings are based on the quantitative analysis of the database as well as a qualitative analysis of a sampling of players' contributions. What follows is a brief summary of our findings that is particularly relevant to this forum.

(Imbalance of) participation profiles. The collective narrative of WWO had a character similar to that of many crowdsourced projects such as Wikipedia. Most of the 322 players contributed only once; the majority of the contributions (more than 800 photos, stories, videos, and voice messages) came from a committed group of just over three dozen players. A small but highly vocal group of "regulars," as we call them—those who contributed frequently and throughout the 32 days of the simulation–dominated the discourse. These numbers alone tell an important story: Developing a rich space for productive conversation and collective problem solving requires the cultivation of participation profiles in ways that support broad and deep engagement with the issues.


(Micro) sustainability. One of the challenges of the game was to imagine what it is like to live in a world without oil. In response, many of the scenarios that players envisioned were, broadly speaking, descriptive. They put forward vignettes of immediate disruption in everyday activities, long-term scenarios of chaos, or scenarios of hope and resilience. Another set of entries were more action-oriented, describing ways in which people might cope with or counter such a crisis through positive individual activity. The majority of entries in this set engage the global oil crisis for its effects on commute options and transportation of goods such as food. Biking and other alternative commuting options emerged often, as well as local food access and actions such as starting a garden. In other words, most of these entries fall under micro-sustainability: personal choices about energy use, transportation, or consumption that affect a single household, rather than systemic changes that might influence public policy, infrastructure, or entire industries that rely on petroleum.

What are the form and quality of environments that foster innovative and grounded engagement with wicked problems such as sustainability?

(Lack of) credibility. Credible information is key to well-founded choices and judgment. Nonetheless, there were few mechanisms in the game to check the credibility of information, to gauge the effectiveness of proposals participants offered, or to evaluate the fidelity of imagined scenarios. Players were ranked based on the frequency of their contributions and what appears to be a subjective rating of the content and stories they were sharing. In spite of the game's intent to build "a record of how a real peak-oil scenario might play out," missing were the voices of knowledgeable individuals from disciplines such as environmental science or energy policy who could guide players to see the complexity of issues and reason about the soundness and effectiveness of their proposals. In the absence of more diverse and informed points of view, the WWO narrative failed to facilitate the grounded engagement and discussion that is needed for innovative problem solving.

back to top  Can Playful Designs Cultivate Sustainability Literacy?

Our analysis of WWO highlights the challenges of creating an environment that is cooperative and at the same time cultivates critical and creative engagement with issues. The game as a whole creates a flexible space enabling participants to easily communicate and exchange ideas. The mechanics of the game, such as the challenges and rewards set by the designers, succeed in getting the participants to actively and imaginatively engage with the thought experiment. This active engagement with the game and other participants creates a sense of commitment and accomplishment that manifests in players' reflections on the game. At the same time, our sampling of players' responses indicates that while player contributions are colorful and imaginative in their details, the recurring themes (of disruption, micro-sustainability, scenarios of chaos, and scenarios of hope) are somewhat limited and broadly follow the arc of the narrative as put forward by the puppet masters in their daily updates. Noticeably lacking, if not absent, from the WWO discourse are discussions of social justice, health and wellness, and security and governance. The authors of this narrative appear more concerned with whether they can still acquire creature comforts such as shade-grown organic coffee beans than the impact of an oil crisis on the larger world.

For all its intentions and promise, World Without Oil failed to create a compelling discourse space on sustainability.

We recognize that facilitating playful engagements with serious subjects involves many design tensions and challenges, especially if they are envisioned as discourse spaces that lead to genuine learning and sustained action. Games may indeed be viewed as potential sites of sustainability discourse that have the power to raise awareness, educate players about the complexity of issues, and engage participants in real-world problem solving. Nonetheless, in our view, for all its intentions and promise, World Without Oil failed to create a compelling discourse space on sustainability. In part, this is due to what Henry Jenkins [5] identifies as the transparency problem: the challenge that participants face in learning to see how media (in this case WWO) shapes their perceptions of the world (in this case, valid proposals to address sustainability issues). The designers of the space reduced all contributions to the narrative to equally valid perspectives, rather than weighting submissions based on their accuracy and relevance, or the degree to which they pushed the conversation on sustainability in new directions. The stars of WWO were those who contributed the most, not the players who developed innovative ideas or questioned the premise of the simulation. References to reality and supporting material such as factual data, real-life events, news, and stories complicated the emerging narrative, making it more difficult for participants to distinguish the "reality" constructed by the game and the reality of issues outside of the game. In the absence of any measures of credibility, authority, or veracity, players potentially read and internalized perspectives on sustainability that were false or misleading.

back to top  How to Foster Innovative Engagement with Sustainability

The unfolding of the WWO narrative and the decade-long approach to sustainability in the field of HCI offer several interesting parallels. More specifically, the transparency problem that surfaced in our analysis of WWO echoes the systemic challenges articulated by Silberman and colleagues regarding the sustainable HCI agenda. Framing the problem in limited terms (high gasoline prices at the pump) parallels the limited scope of problems addressed by HCI research, particularly its emphasis on monitoring consumption and individual behavior change. The role of feedback mechanisms in the game is parallel to the reward systems set by the discipline, including publication cycles and review criteria that encourage small-scale, short-term, technology-centered work. The relevance of credible and knowledgeable voices mirrors the need for HCI research to engage other disciplines and alternate modes of knowing.

Our analysis of WWO underlines the need to cultivate a richer conversation on sustainability commensurate with the complexity of the problem at hand, striking a balance between creative envisioning and serious reflection. To envision a more sustainable future, playfully or seriously, we need to balance individual initiatives such as planting trees and changing lightbulbs with collaborative engagements that explore and bring about long-term systemic approaches. Creating environments that support such engagements is fundamental to this purpose.

back to top  References

1. Barack Obama: How he did it. Newsweek (Nov. 4, 2008);

2. Silberman, M.S., Nathan, L., Knowles, B., Bendor, R., Clear, A., Hokansson, M.H., Dillahunt, T., and Mankoff, J. Next steps for sustainable HCI. Interactions 21, 5 (2014), 66–69.

3. JafariNaimi, N. and Meyers, E.M. Collective intelligence or group think? Engaging participation patterns in World Without Oil. Proc. of the ACM 2015 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. ACM, New York, 2015 (forthcoming).

4. McGonigal, J. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin, New York, 2011.

5. Jenkins, J. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, New York, 2006.

back to top  Authors

Nassim JafariNaimi is an assistant professor in the Digital Media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interest is in the ethical and political dimension of design and its capacity to mediate social and collective interactions.

Eric Meyers is an assistant professor at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia (The iSchool@UBC). His research interests lie at the intersection of information science, the learning sciences, and new media studies, with a focus on collaborative information use and meaning making in social situations.

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