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Green gamification: what is it and how does it work?

It was already born in motion. A path by stages, a way, a challenge: sustainability is a race in which each of us participates to ensure access to primary resources for future generations, in a wide-open game against the clock. A race that is more than a game.

Sustainability requires the participation of us all to ensure a safe, healthy and habitable planet for future generations. But it is a race against the clock, and involvement from everyone is vital. We at AWorld have incorporated gaming into everyday life to tackle a new layer: green gamification, and we’re here to explain the ins-and outs of it.

After years of buzz and chatter, the trend of gamification is now seemingly everywhere. The term first appeared in the early 2000s, when game programmer Nick Pelling founded his own agency in the UK, specialising in an innovative service: “Applying gaming techniques in ordinary contexts to make playfulness a time of learning with high emotional engagement.” 

It was a keen insight, but still slightly out of focus. It would take another decade before Jesse Schell, a game designer and professor at Carnegie Mellon University would describe gamification in his TedTalk as the element capable of transcending console screens and entering every sphere of daily life. 

In his Ted Talk – entitled ‘Out of the Box – Schell, describes a future where an act as simple as brushing one’s teeth or keeping track of one’s steps on a walk can become part of a collective challenge that can make a difference to society, companies and healthcare systems at large. The incentive? Challenging other users on point-counting systems and supplying rewards for milestones and levels achieved. 

Schell’s insight is a revolutionary conception that looks at an entirely new way of understanding gaming. Over time, the figures proved him right and showed how gamification has become one of the main pillars that underpin edutainment. Today, it is an indispensable tool of B2B and B2C engagement. 

Gamification and sustainability: where does this link come from?

Every period of time comes with its own set of themes and challenges. In the current moment, the focus is largely on the climate crisis – and by extension – the world of sustainability. But how do environmental issues interplay with gamification, and how does the relationship between the two change in specific periods of time? Let’s explore one recent, yet striking, example: the pandemic. 

The exponential growth of the gaming industry during the months of isolation captured the acute need for online socialisation. During this time of upheaval, demand for gaming and interaction platforms reached unprecedented levels, even surpassing the demand for more traditional entertainment products, such as music, movies or TV series. 

As a result, apps, new web platforms, and engaging and interactive online games sprang up, turning isolation into a moment of socialisation, even if only virtually. It is still a growing market that alone is worth more than $336 billion (USD) today, and according to Klecha & Co. data, will reach $522 billion by 2027, an increase of 9.2%. 

Along with the platforms, the number of gamers is also growing, from an estimated 3.2 billion regular gamers to 3.6 billion by 2025. 

The preferred gaming device? For 50% of gamers, it is mobile devices such as smartphones, smartwatches, viewers, and tablets. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the phenomenon of interactive engagement does not only affect the very young, but also extends to other generational groups, including and up to baby boomers under 65. This has not gone unnoticed by brands with a strong sense of the contemporary and, clearly, tech innovators who have been able to successfully engage broad and differentiated clusters of users.

In this context, the world of sustainability has been able to harness the sense of urgency amongst users across the Planet wanting to be part of a community, and enhance it through the trend of ludification, to increase engagement and educate citizens on sustainable development issues. This has made green gamification or sustainability gamification a highly strategic and environmentally impactful engagement technique.  

What is the goal of green gamification?

When it comes to sustainability, introducing gaming into non-playful contexts can help facilitate more engagement, education and activation. The purpose is to create a large community and foster a global behavioral change to involve and motivate people to take positive actions and adopt behaviors with low environmental impact.

Thanks to the emotional activation that arises from gaming, users are engaged in challenges, leaderboards, and goals, and competition between teams or individual users is encouraged. The aim is always connected to accumulating points to unlock new levels of play and new habits with a measurable impact in the real world: volunteering, cleaning up a beach, reducing one’s carbon footprint, or embracing a more plant-based diet are just some of the possible objectives.

Beyond these outcomes, when sustainability themes intersect with a brand’s values, it may arise that the company starts following a strategy of good practices, positively influencing the behaviors of its customers and employees as well.

Case studies like that of the automotive giant Toyota demonstrate how incorporating green gamification can translate into concrete wins. Take for example the Toyota Prius, a car that uses gaming mechanisms to motivate drivers to maintain an energetically efficient driving style. In addition to the usual indicators, the onboard computer shows the miles traveled since the last refueling, influenced by the driver’s actions. Pressing hard on the accelerator reduces the score. This tactic encourages drivers to continuously improve their personal sustainability record, to drive more cautiously, and to feel part of a shared positive change.

Even if in a broad sense, gamification can be included in a company’s branded content, without forgetting the golden rule of edutainment: coherence. Creating a sustainable game that reflects a company’s values must be based on the actions and choices made by the company, or on the real commitment expected to be seen.

And speaking of real commitment, what would happen if two cities were put in competition with each other in a challenge based on energy savings? That’s the question developers at UtilityCo, the Opower platform – now owned by the Oracle group –  asked themselves.

The US company – an expert in data analysis and interpretation – developed a green gamification platform dedicated to monitoring household utilities, with the aim of tracking consumption and comparing statistics of all its utilities in a single account.

While the initial idea was to create competition between users (with friends or neighbours) to challenge them to reduce energy or water consumption, given its success, a new development unfolded. The company decided to launch larger and more participatory challenges, even going as far as putting entire cities in competition with each other.  Here, the virtuous commitment of users had positive repercussions on the entire community of cities like New York and Los Angeles.

In addition to calculating both energy savings and emissions spared, there is also other valuable data to consider. According to a 2023 report from Oracle itself, 80% of the 400,000 low-income users involved in a multi-state pilot project reported being satisfied with the economic savings resulting from the reduction in energy consumption. These were the very same users (86%) who had previously expressed concern about the difficulty of affording bill payments.

What do these examples show us? That green gamification makes environmental and social awareness an engaging and immersive activity that encourages people to do their best for the preservation of the Planet and the socio-economic well-being of its inhabitants.

What is the impact of green gamification on behavioral change?

Activating the global population to compete for the same goal produces measurable and participatory change created by millions of simultaneous actions. Being aware of this worldwide involvement entices us to be part of the large, active community taking action every day to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Observing others’ virtuous behaviors, even in gaming environments, and assessing their benefits, drives us to emulate them in pursuit of gratification or other benefits. Simply put: by playing, we learn. As long as there’s something in return.

In the case of green gamification, the return also encompasses the emotional well-being derived from actively promoting actions aimed at improving the current state of the world. Only one thing is required of those who want to participate, and it involves changing certain behaviors.

But how does one  learn them? Adopting new behaviors isn’t simply a matter of imitation. It’s not enough to merely observe; one must understand and feel deeply involved. A pivotal step in this process is to attribute new meanings to things, such as everyday actions and gestures. This facilitates a gradual and conscious re-coding of one’s habits.

Attention, then, is all about engagement and motivation.

When sustainability is described in negative — or worse – catastrophic terms to capture users’ attention, the result is often disengagement, as users feel overwhelmed by an irredeemable sense of defeat and helplessness instead of being called to action. Blame for behavior is never useful for self-improvement or prompting change.

So how can this be addressed? Using a positive tone of voice and constructive language encourages users to maintain attention and, crucially, motivation, such as through immediate rewards.

This system of scoring and feedback fosters users’ enthusiasm and gets them involved by activating cognitive biases towards rewarding behaviors, which not only urges users to do more but also motivates them to do better.

But as with all good challenges, green gamification also has many obstacles, including that of moral disengagement (Bridging the Intention-Behavior Gap). To bridge the gap between intentionality and behavior, sociologists say it is critical to understand the many and varied dynamics that influence people’s decisions and actions.

Moral disengagement is the mental and emotional process that refers to the difference between what people intend to do, and what they actually do. For example, many people may intend to reduce their environmental impact, but struggle to change their habits and thus are unable to turn these intentions into concrete, sustainable actions. There are a number of factors at play here, including issues such as discouragement, shifting responsibility, and moral justification.

In this regard, green gamification strategies aim to reinforce the sense of belonging that has always connected us. Behavioral scholars call it Mirroring or, more simply, the Chameleon Effect – that sense of belonging that guides people when making decisions. In short, providing a good example, prompts a good example.

To address this gap and resolve it encouragingly, we can adopt some green gamification strategies that act on moral commitment in a simple way. Let’s explore how:

  • Strengthen ethical awareness: using scenarios and contexts that interact with the real world can help users become aware of the actual impact of their actions.
  • Encourage positive behavior: seeing other players engage in ethical behavior encourages users to do the same. Points, badges, and leaderboards should be used as incentives to activate good behaviors.
  • Establish social norms and create a socialising environment: game platforms that use advanced engagement techniques can increase user empathy by providing context from different perspectives.

How to implement gamification in sustainability?

Many companies approach sustainability through sporadic activities or one-off engagement programmes, which may yield specific benefits or high participation rates but often lack continuity and fail to instill a true culture of sustainability. Edutainment techniques like green gamification involve creating stable, scalable models that progress through structured blocks of information. These models, both playable and engaging, are activated through competition, but more importantly, they are designed for continuity and durability over time.

In addition to large communities participating concurrently, green gamification is also suitable for programmes targeting individual users. The mere inclusion of badges and leaderboards isn’t sufficient; successful engagement is also gauged in terms of retention, indicating the degree of user appreciation and loyalty.

Like many other topics, sustainability includes ever-evolving trends and issues. Designing a tool that is capable of agilely rotating around different topics ensures broader coverage and a wider pool of interest. The mechanism is akin to the “frameworks” an old school video game: each scenario presents new information, challenges, and objectives, allowing gamers to train and prepare for increasingly difficult and advanced levels. In essence, each level unlocks new obstacles that facilitate the development of new skills. Similarly, sustainability can also serve as the perfect arena for experiencing change and fostering growth.

What features must green gamification have to be efficient?

Mediums change, and plugging a console into a television is no longer the only way to incorporate gaming into our lives. Apps, role-playing, board games, augmented reality live events, or web app mini-games are just some of the best formats to experiment with user engagement. 

When it comes to creating new gaming platforms, one can take inspiration y from popular video games, or even be assisted by a narrative designer to create their own game from scratch. 

Adopting a clear and original tone of voice makes the information accessible to those of any level, an inclusive preliminary step with which to introduce users to the game. And on the topic of inclusivity, game platforms should also be accessible for people with disabilities or disorders, such as dyslexia or color blindness. Additionally, user-friendly interfaces and scalable learning curves are crucial to keep users active and engaged. Ultimately, green gamification should always be easily accessible and intuitive, and avoid unnecessary complexities that can discourage users.

Once the inclusion parameters have been adjusted, all that remains is to choose the gaming format best suited to the context: strategy, quizzes, point competitions, escape rooms, and narrative frameworks. Each gaming model has its own peculiarities and attracts different types of players, reflecting the wide range of preferences and interests in the gaming world. 
While a range of options are available, there are a few  helpful universal rules for good gamification, including: 

  • Clear goals: Gamification is most effective when goals are clearly defined. Users need to understand what is expected of them and what the rewards are for achieving the goal. This helps users maintain motivation and focus on the purpose of their sustainable engagement.


  • Visible progression: Showing progress through progress bars, levels, or leaderboard panels can motivate users to continue their commitment to the “mission.” This measurement gives users a sense of accomplishment and personal growth. As the point bar advances in the game, the user advances in real-world awareness.


  • Immediate feedback: Providing users with immediate feedback on their actions helps them understand whether they are acting correctly toward the game’s goals. This also contributes to faster learning and a more satisfying user experience. Automatic summaries of daily activities or actions that the user has taken belong in this group. An example? Choosing not to use a private car for a small errand and immediately getting the CO2 savings calculation.


  • Friendly and cooperative competition: Competition with other users can increase engagement, while cooperative elements can enhance collaboration and community building. Both of these elements, when used appropriately, can strengthen interaction and engagement, making the user feel part of a global community acting for the greater good.


  • Real Impact: Users should feel that their actions have a significant impact, both within the game context and in the real world. This helps to both motivate them and deepens engagement.


  • Storytelling and storydoing: One of the most effective levers of interaction and engagement is to build stories and narrative worlds that take users on a journey through emotions and suggestions they can identify with. But what happens when the world in question is the real one? These are stories revolving around the values, commitment, and hopes of a protagonist who wants to achieve a goal and motivates their choices. Not all protagonists are based on works of fiction; sometimes, all it takes is an avatar of the user herself/himself to make their sustainability journey more exciting than ever. 

These are just a few of the fundamental elements of green gamification, and they have the power to transform ordinary actions into material, real-world impacts. Last but not least, there is the element of engagement par excellence: the reward. A key theme that deserves a paragraph entirely to itself. 

Rewards, prizes and motivation: the techniques of attention in green gamification.

Reward tools are used in a range of contexts to reinforce specific behaviors that incentivise repetition. Simply put, it is a process of positive reinforcement. 

As you can easily guess, rewards are one of the key mechanisms around which the engagement techniques of digital games revolve. Think of the most well-known video games in history. There are princesses to save, gold doubloons to collect or ghosts to capture. Each player’s action is matched by an immediate payoff: the satisfaction of a reward. Traditional rewards are based on a points system translated into medals to collect and virtual badges or, as is increasingly the case, quantifiable incentives in discounts or gifts to spend in the analog world. These are all rewards that serve to positively reinforce the use of the game platform and incentivise users to achieve as many goals as possible, either alone or within leagues or teams of online players. 

The rewards can be both digital and physical, and when the gaming arena is about green gamification, the consistency of ethics and values extends to the rewards as well, an inescapable fact. Users of this branch of gaming are far more demanding because the sense of belonging that drives them to compete goes beyond the trigger of immediate feedback. The reward needs to have a broader meaning, it must truly accord with a positive return in the real world. Reinforcing user satisfaction requires staying in the domain of sustainability, even in a more general sense. 

Low-impact digital rewards help to  reinforce the meaning that is attached to winning, namely, having actually done something concrete and positive for environmental protection. As an alternative to digital prizes, however, low-impact experiences and utilities can also be up for grabs. This can include public transportation passes, charitable donations, or even physical prizes supporting virtuous behaviors such as electric bikes, tree planting in the user’s name, or prizes that are also non-utility but come from collaboration with ethical partners or fairtrade entities. 

According to Octalysis, the Framework for Gamification and Behavioral Design, the games that work best are based on the feeling the user has in the moment of victory, the games that work best are based on the feeling the user has in the moment of victory, or in the continuous effort made to achieve the victory. 

This framework is based on a 19-year long collection of data and observations that have produced 8 key emotional activation points (emotional drivers). These activation points help to build strategies and rewards that make a game exciting. 

  1. Hero’s call, or epic calling 
  2. Fulfillment
  3. Empowerment of creativity 
  4. Ownership 
  5. Social influence and social responses
  6. Scarcity and impatience 
  7. Unpredictability and Curiosity 
  8. Loss and avoidance 

Designing  effective gamification is more than just gamifying an action or deed.  It is knowing how to tap into the insights hidden within the emotional drivers of users and from  those build the most compelling of game arenas. When the arena is Planet Earth, gamification turns green and the challenge becomes global. 

AWorld: an example of gamification in sustainability

Born out of the urgency to prompt sustainable engagement from both  citizens and companies alike, AWorld turned the rules of the usual sustainability narrative upside down. AWorld used green gamification as a tool to engage, educate, and incentivise people to do their part in the most important challenge ever: to measure the positive environmental impact of users across the Planet. By gamifying green issues AWorld helps to establish a community focused on the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 169 targets. By taking one action after another, users learn to reevaluate the emotional and environmental impact of their choices toward the Planet and redefine the trajectory of our future to become more conscious, ethical, and sustainable.  

A catalyst for green culture on a global scale, AWorld is now the only official app chosen by the United Nations for the Act Now campaign and a partner of the European Climate Pact. 

Awarded by Google as the Best App for Good in 2023, AWorld has significantly boosted user engagement, leading to tangible results and creating  a culture of positive impact. It’s revolutionising how organisations engage with stakeholders on sustainability issues and in just three years, AWorld has inspired over 21,000,000 positive actions for the planet.

Learn more about AWorld; where change begins.

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The key to build a sustainable company? Engage your employees.

Find out now how to engage your employees with AWorld’s FREE GUIDE and boost your company’s sustainable transformation.