In attempts to improve the environment, we do things like recycle and use energy-efficient lightbulbs. But what if our responsibilities in — and impact on — our cities’ environments were far greater? In Eskom Energy Planner, players are given complete control over the electrical infrastructure of a virtual city, putting them in charge of managing everything from power plants to lights left on in an unused room.
Players build different types of power plants to keep the city running, tasked with balancing each plant’s positive and negative impacts on the happiness and environmentally-friendliness of the city. In the time waiting for revenue to develop, players explore smaller ways to be environmentally friendly, by turning off lights in unused rooms or fixing a mess of power cords in an office space. This versatile gameplay showcases the point that environmental strategies cannot merely be top-down or bottom-up, but rather a mix of the two.
What motivates you to make games for social impact?
To answer this, I need to address two questions: First, what motivates us to work on projects that have the goal to improve a social or environmental condition? I mean, there is much better money in selling stuff to people that they don’t really need. For us designers it is the same level of skill and effort that goes into designing a game that targets people’s unhealthy eating habits as there is to create a gamified shopping mall.
However, the personal rewards are different. Most of us including myself are happier people when our work affects our world positively. So, instilling positive social change with our work is something we are proud of at Formula D.
The other question is, “Why games?” The assumption that computer games can have a positive impact on the social fabric of our societies is bold and fascinating. But it is also controversial.
I am glad that there are also critical voices which challenge the TED-style claims that games are about to change the world. As designers and enthusiasts of serious games we need to be careful not to promise more than we can deliver.
However, I don’t have a doubt that games are fantastic vehicles to influence behavior. Games allow people to slip into unfamiliar and sometimes unpopular roles. They are consequential environments, where we can safely experiment with actions and effects, most of which we would not dare to try in reality.
To me, at the core of changing behavior is deep experiential learning. We change our behavior when something hurts, for example, when we burn our fingers. Behaviors that are more difficult to change are the ones that don’t effect the “now,” but our future, like smoking for example, or the behaviors that don’t affect us directly, but our environments and neighbors.
Games can create immersive environments, which let us experience future scenarios based on our immediate actions; they may make us feel compassionate as we identify with the role of somebody else. This “probable me” of role play is one of the most powerful ways of learning. To me this bares the true potential of games for social impact.
How long has Eskom Energy Planner been in development, and what tools were used to make it? What’s your team’s background in making games?
We initially developed a very basic energy game for a touch table exhibit in the Necsa Visitor Centre, for South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Corporation. The budget allocation for this exhibit was very low, but since we saw the potential of the game, we agreed to deliver the project, making sure we maintained the copyright of it. We then approached Eskom and suggested our energy game as part of their demand management campaign. They liked the idea.
From the initial engagement to the current version of the game, we have gone through various iterations; altogether we worked on the game for eight months spread over two years. The game is built in ActionScript 3 with a PHP backend and MySQL database for user registration and score tracking.
Formula D Interactive is not a classical game design company. We are all about technology and 21st-century learning strategies, of which gaming is a fundamental part. Our interactive exhibit work for science centers and museums often comprises game elements. These games can be around recycling, life skills, or science subjects like nanotechnology and chemistry.
We also create interactive content for corporate learning. The business world has used board games to simulate business processes and strategies for decades, and we help them to tap into the potential of digital games. Our favorite projects, however, are games that have the potential to fuel positive social change.
How did Eskom come to purchase Energy Planner? Can you describe your partnership with them?
At first, Eskom did not really engage much in the development of the game. They liked the game, but it seemed they hadn’t really decided what to do with it. But in the most recent and longest project phase Eskom engaged two of their specialists to be part of the design team: one demand management expert and an energy engineer who provided us with real energy data and helped create the logic of the back-end calculations. Their subject matter experts really pushed the game to the next level.
How did developing Eskom Energy Planner differ from Formula D Interactive’s past projects? What was the most important lesson your team learned from making this game that could be applied to other games for change projects?
I think compared to other projects Eskom Energy Planner may have a bigger reach and thus a higher potential in terms of its impact on energy behavior in South Africa. We also see a lot of opportunity for the game to be used as a training and induction tool for Eskom employees and the recruitment of new staff.
With the continued commitment of Eskom we will be able to build different levels and adjustable scenarios for different audiences and purposes. Ultimately, we would like to make the game a crowed-sourced problem-solving platform for real-world energy challenges.
An important lesson learned not only from this project is that building a good game for social or environmental impact is not enough. Specifically for conservative companies like Eskom, using a game in their communication strategy is unprecedented. Clients of these projects need more than good game designers, they need strategic thinking for the implementation and roll-out of the game as well.
Is there a game for social impact you wish you had designed or want to design? What is it and why?
We have a lot of ideas. I am personally extremely interested in life skills, psychoanalysis and (self)coaching. In 2011 we created the Life Choices touch table game, a multiplayer mini-game for teenagers. Players are presented with various everyday life scenarios and have to make decisions, which lead them to the next scenario within a decision tree. It would be exciting to develop this further and possibly create games as a first aid for people who experience a personal crisis in their lives.
What do you think of the current state of games for social impact?
I think it’s early days. Even the larger category of serious games, which includes highly commercial products, still seems to be a niche. Recently, my daughter had her fist day at school and the headmaster exclaimed in his speech that this was the beginning of a new era for the kids: the era of learning!
Unfortunately, this statement represents a very common perception that fun and games, basically the majority of activities before one starts school, have little to do with learning. Once we get games back into schools, we may be surprised about the social impact.
Edited by Noalee Harel, Games for Change intern.