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EcoIsland: The global warming game!

Main EcoIsland window

Main EcoIsland window

In “EcoIsland: A system for persuading users to reduce C02 Emissions,” Chihiro Takayama at Master’s student at  Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan and Vili Lehdonvirta a PhD student at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, Finland present a persuasive computer-based system aimed at helping families to shift their habits towards sustainability, with the aim of decreasing CO2 emissions.  The EcoIsland project was further explored in the paper ” Designing Persuasive Applications to Motivate Sustainable Behavior in Collectivist Cultures,”  by Hiroaki Kimura and Tatsuo Nakajima from the Department of Computer Science, Waseda University in Japan.

The latter paper discusses differences as it relates to persuasion between individualist and collectivist cultures and propose five design strategies for persuasive applications that could be used in a collectivist culture, namely: organizing groups, anonymity, mutual surveillance, development of mutual aid, a combination of positive and negative feedback. The paper starts by addressing the use of persuasive applications on individuals and the dearth of such examples designed to work with groups of individuals (p. 10), something I’m particularly interested in, given that I want to introduce such tools in the workplace. 

The study attempts to deal with the “temporal gap” between users’ actions and the subsequent consequences associated with them, (p. 8) and explores the development of the “EcoIsland” application to create a relationship between CO2 emissions and rising sea levels – a particularly important consequence of climate change for island nations like Japan where is experiment was executed.  The application appears to have had the look and feel of a game and the main objective was to save a virtual island from rising sea levels by decreasing the amount of self-reported greenhouse gases that each household emits in the real world and participating in green activities (e.g. shortening shower time, using a reusable bags, etc.) all of which were reported by family members using a mobile phone or a web browser. Each of the six households in the experiment had its own island, populated by avatars representing each family member. All twenty participants could view their own island in addition to other nearby islands, in order to compare their situations. Green activities allowed the family to accumulate “EcoPoints” which the family could use to purchase virtual items for the island or to trade emissions with other islands (p. 15)

Left: contribution of individual family members. Right: Each member’s activity history.

Left: contribution of individual family members. Right: Each member’s activity history.

The findings from the experiment, which took place over the span of a month, demonstrated a marked increase in environmental awareness with this tool; however there was no marked difference in terms of energy use in the home (electricity usage in the homes was tracked before and during the use of EcoIsland). The majority of participants were asked to undertake green activates by their family members and/or felt compelled to do so due to seeing the participation in green activities by their family members on EcoIsland. Most participants also mentioned that they we interested in the neighboring islands, and felt a sense of superiority over neighboring islands who’s inhabitants were not seen to be as green as them. The authors further suggest that this bit of competition may have compelled families to work harder together (p. 22)

Contrary to other research, the authors found that negative reinforcement, such as the flooding of the island, served as legitimate motivation for participants. However, the authors note that participants perceived saving the island as easy (p. 22),so they were less subject to feelings of defeat described in other research.

The game format of this particular EcoIsland reminded me of a TED talk that I’m quite fond of “Brenda Brathwaite: Gaming for understanding,” as it explores the potential of games to make “real” concepts that have been abstracted by time or history.


Takayama, Chihiro, and Vili Lehdonvirta. “EcoIsland: A system for persuading users to reduce CO2 emissions.”. Sydney: 2008. 2-17. Web. http://www.pervasive2008.org/Papers/Workshop/w2-17.pdf
Kimura, H., and T. Nakajima. “Designing Persuasive Applications to Motivate Sustainable Behavior in Collectivist Cultures.” The Other Side of Technology 9, no. 1 (2011): 7–28. Web. http://www.psychnology.org/File/PNJ9%281%29/PSYCHNOLOGY_JOURNAL_9_1_KIMURA.pdf
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