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Want to save money on your energy bill? Try this video game

FILE: Show attendees play video games at the Square Enix booth at E3 2012 in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 5, 2012.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The quest to get Americans to cut down their energy use is becoming a lot less dreary and preachy — and a lot more fun.

The reason? A trend called “gamification,” in which academic researchers and utility companies alike are trying to tap into our social side — and the power of entertainment — to get people to cut back on use and lower their bills.

The shift towards gamification is the subject of a new report just out from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which closely analyzes 22 separate games that “could be or actually are part of a utility [company] energy efficiency program.” Most of the games have come on the scene very recently — since 2010. And they seem to work. In fact, the report finds that “gamified energy efficiency programs can achieve energy savings of 3-6 % among a sizeable number of participants.”

Granted, this is not exactly Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto that we’re talking about.

Gamified energy programs are not the same thing as video games, the ACEEE report stresses; the fundamental difference is that they exist in order to prompt people to behave differently in the real world. “Whereas fun is the whole point of videogames, it is simply another way of achieving the whole point of gamification, which is to motivate and encourage people to do something,” notes the report.

So what kind of games are we talking about? They vary dramatically, but for an example, consider the online, multiplayer game called Power House. It was conceived of by a Stanford researcher, Byron Reeves, as part of a larger Department of Energy grant to the university that involved research on energy related behavioral changes. Then the game was designed by Kuma Games.

Here’s an explanatory image, showing the interface and what  the different icons mean:

In Power House, you “play” in a virtual home and virtual neighborhood, completing a variety of tasks that involve managing how your family uses energy. Through Facebook, you can also network with other friends and members of your community and compete with them to save energy.

But Power House in effect dances back and forth between the virtual and the real. For instance, the game interfaces with your electricity information as available through your smart meter and your utility company. And real life energy behaviors then feed back into the game.

For instance, if players have used less home energy (in their actual physical homes) from one day to the next, they can get “Upgrade Bucks” in the game. These can then be used to install virtual (not real) home improvements that make the (video game) home more energy efficient — thus upping your score.

Research suggests the game works. In one trial, 40 people played PowerHouse and another (control) group played a non-energy related video game. While the study was happening, the research investigator suddenly told subjects that he or she had to leave, and asked them to “’close the office’ when they were finished with the game and questionnaire.” Those playing Power House turned off significantly more appliances before leaving than those who weren’t playing it.

Moreover, in another experiment that looked at longer term smart meter data from PowerHouse players, they were found to cut their energy use by 2 percent in the month after playing the game, compared with how much they used in the previous month.

Gamification may be just what the energy efficiency arena needed, for one key reason. As a recent study notes, even though we’ve invested a fortune in devices like smart meters that theoretically give people access to much more information about their energy use, the information itself remains obscure and hard to access in many cases.

“Despite the availability of rich mines of data, there is still a problem: the process by which consumers interact with this data is not engaging,” the paper notes.

Gamification is very new, and it isn’t clear that there’s a runaway winner, an Angry Birds of home energy conservation. But the field of contenders is growing.

“Maybe the best way to think about gamified energy efficiency solutions is to see them as training wheels, a way to introduce people to the intrinsic satisfaction of gliding along on their own two wheels after the game’s apparatus is removed,” concludes the ACEEE report.

“The fact is that saving energy is highly rewarding in itself, and the greatest achievement a game could aim for is to bring out the multiple satisfactions that are there in the first place.”