How play adapts human behavior to combat climate change

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We finally did it! Climate change made headlines of mainstream media. We read about the oven-like heat and raging fires happening across Europe. We hear the endless discussions among politicians about Russian gas and finding energy alternatives. And we learn about a survey that ecological systems in Australia are collapsing. Reality is in our face. We are destroying our home.

Shame on us?

Some people dedicate their life to fighting climate change. But the majority of us does not care enough or feels their actions make no difference. So we choose to focus on other things we like and care about.


Shame on us? Maybe. The many priorities and distractions we have make it difficult for us to truly act. We are only triggered when it’s relevant, enjoyable and doesn’t cost too much effort. In addition, we are social creatures. If others don’t do something, why should we?

Let’s have fun in making meaningful change

Politicians and big corporations need to step up and show responsibility for our planet. But let’s not wait for them. We as citizens can also act, but just need to approach it differently than we do now. We need some fun while making a difference. And not for the selfish reasons that play is fun, but because we know play is a powerful mechanism to adapt behavior.


If you take a look at how we develop ourselves, it’s through play. Think about the times you (or your children) learned to walk, talk, fight, play soccer, read, and so on. Most of us learned it through certain concepts of play. Think about the goals you achieved by getting points or grades, the social status you achieved by being the best person of the soccer match, or the hugs you received from your mother when you took your first steps. You performed better because play was involved. Play is a universal development mechanism. For a deeper understanding, see this TED Talk by Stuart Brown.

Humankind has a collective superpower

Collectively we are powerful. The recent corona pandemic was a viral serial killer on the loose, endangering citizens worldwide. To get back to the status quo, we worked on all levels as a collective, and were able to get the virus under control.


The corona pandemic was a difficult, painful, but clearly visible problem. The climate change crisis is less clear, despite droughts, floods and fires literally being at our doorstep. But let’s assume we can truly adapt our behavior and collectively reduce our meat consumption, stop using fossil fuels, and use circular materials. Then we can still give our children a good future. They can still inherit a beautiful world with enough food, water, medicine and nature without any wars and conflicts caused by climate-related shortages and threats.

When doing a playful activity around a sustainability-related topic, we become more motivated and more able to act.

So now what?

How to adapt human behavior and save humankind from climate disaster? The introduction of playful interventions can trigger humans to adapt and make better choices for our environment. We become more motivated and more able to act.


Here are two examples of playful activities that make people behave differently in a non-sustainability context:

  • Pokemon Go makes people (both children and adults) walk a lot more than without the game. According to a study (Khamzina 2019), this was an increase of 1.446 steps per day.
  • Michelin, a car tyre company came up with the Michelin star restaurant guide, which was a gamified concept that made people drive across the country to experience the best cuisine. People used up their tyres quicker, resulting in higher sales for Michelin. See this video to learn more about the background.


Let’s now dive a bit deeper to see how play influences behavior. Behavior is the sum of three factors: Motivation, Ability and Prompt. This is based on a theory from behavioral scientist BJ Fogg (source: BJ Fogg model). For each of these three factors, we explain how a playful intervention affects us.

B=MAP. "Behavior (B) happens when Motivation (M), Ability (A), and a Prompt (P) come together at the same moment."

B.J. Fogg

1. Motivation

How motivation works

We are motivated to act because either (1) we ourselves want to do something (intrinsic) or (2) something else pushes us to do something (extrinsic). Extrinsic motivators are mostly of material value, like discounts, free gifts, trophies, salary increases, taxes, etc. They can be powerful at the start, but have a relatively short-term effect. To have a lasting powerful effect, it’s best to raise intrinsic motivations, a powerful motivator that comes from inside of you. According to BJ Fogg, motivation falls in these three core areas: pleasure versus pain (sensation), hope versus fear (anticipation), and social acceptance versus rejection (belonging):

We seek pleasure and avoid pain

Example: I like eating meat. It tastes good and gives me pleasure. But if we get special taxes on meat, my pleasure from eating meat drops and I experience a financial form of pain. Moreover, when I watch the Cowspiracy documentary, I get an increased awareness on the topic. On top of the financial pain, I feel (moral) pain because I see how much damage meat consumption has on animals, deforestation, land depletion and emissions. If my pain becomes more than the gained pleasure from eating meat, I reduce or stop my meat consumption. 


The problem here is that taxes are an unpopular instrument to use, so we could wait a long time for taxes on meat to happen worldwide. And only a small portion of society is watching climate-related documentaries, so for real change we need to have a wider reach.

We seek hope and avoid fear

Fear and hope are strong opposites. Where fear is negative and closed, hope is positive and open. Both are equally powerful motivators when it comes to climate change communications (study). Sadly, the most climate-related media messages raise fear in us. And there is a good reason why it’s raising fear, we do have quite a critical situation. But receiving these messages make you also feel depressed, powerless and uncomfortable. This makes us close off and stop consuming that type of content.

We seek social acceptance and avoid rejection

To be loved (or not hated) by someone (e.g. your mother, your boss or your friend) we behave according to their set of norms & values. In organized groups (e.g. sorority club, a company, football club, activist group), you need to pay fees or do specific tasks to belong and stay part of the group. But these efforts are all worth it if it means being socially accepted and feeling a sense of belonging. You are motivated to act.


Differently said, we don’t like to feel socially rejected and left out. So we jump through all kinds of hoops to belong to certain groups.

Deepdive – Psychological distance

In the area of climate-related natural disasters, psychological distance (part of belonging to something) is another strong factor of motivation. Sometimes issues are too far away for us. When a flood kills many people on the other side of the world, I feel less emotionally involved than when it happens in my own country. I can relate better to people around and feel more connected. Read the separate article here.

How playful activities raise Motivation

A playful activity is fun. In other words, it’s pleasurable. The whole play design – whether it’s the story, mechanics, aesthetics/art, or all of these combined – trigger your intrinsic motivation. What motivates you depends on the type of person you are. It could be to dominate & compete to be the best, explore & discover new things, collect items and achievements, tackle intelligent puzzles, build something beautiful together, etc etc.


In addition, playful activities are positive and open minded. You play and experiment within a safe environment. There is no negativity or fear. If you mess up it’s OK. You just start again. And well-balanced playful activities ensure the activity is not too difficult in the start, but become more difficult when your skills increase, to make sure you keep a high motivation.


If a normal activity is designed to raise awareness and ability towards a specific behavioral adaptation, a playful activity will ensure people will keep doing that activity. They stay in the play process long enough that they can absorb all relevant knowledge and skills. When this is achieved by the player, the barrier to adapt to the new behavior becomes very low.


For example, think about the meat consumption example I mentioned earlier. Because of higher taxes and watching the Cowspiracy documentary, my pain was higher than my pleasure of consuming meat, so I stopped. A playful activity can achieve the same result, by playfully providing knowledge about the situation and giving tangible tools & skills to consume plant-based food. Or maybe it lets you virtually experiment with your meals, so you can earn points.


And since we know social acceptance is a strong motivator, we can add a social element to the playful activity. What if virtually cooking your plant-based meals also gives you certain social status points. You don’t want to be left behind, so you may feel motivated to put in a bit of extra effort.

zerow - play builds ability

2. Ability

How ability works

Imagine we are fully motivated to act. Then we still have four ability-related barriers standing in the way to adapt behavior.


Awareness. Do we know about climate change-related issues? Most of us know that moving from fossil fuel to renewable energies reduces CO2 emissions. But less people are aware about the issues & consequences of biodiversity loss.


(Deeper) understanding. If we are aware, do we understand the causes, consequences, solutions and actions we can take? Scientific reports and news articles can sometimes be quite dry and difficult to read, especially when we have limited knowledge on the subject. There are definitely some good blogs and videos about it, but that takes a lot of motivation to start reading it.


Skills. If we are aware and understand the situation, do we have the skills to respond? We may not be trained nor have the physical skills to act.


Resources. And finally – if we are aware and understand the situation, and have all the skills to take action, we still need resources to take action. Important resources are:

  • time (e.g. besides your day job, hobbies, children, etc.), 
  • physical capabilities (e.g. am I fit to cycle to work), 
  • cognitive load (e.g. finding plant-based foods you like can be a hassle), or 
  • finances (e.g. installing solar panels is expensive).

Feeling the lack of Ability, it has a direct impact on our Motivation to act. We gave up before we even tried. A normal human response.

How playful activities raise Ability

A playful activity is an active process. Unlike a movie where your mind is passively engaged, you are actively engaged in an activity. Your action creates a reaction. And your actions influence the end result. This active state enables you to absorb new knowledge, develop physical or cognitive skills and better maintain that new developed ability.


Throughout this process, a well-designed activity can increase awareness, understanding, skills and resources. For example, you may learn that when ordering a burger you use 3.140 liters of water (understanding), or by following a few steps taking only 60 fun minutes and less than 30 euros, you help the birds and bees in your environment a lot and improve biodiversity (skill, time, financial resources).


And when reading the above paragraph, it may feel negative and energy consuming. But through the playful activity, a normally tedious, negative and paternalistic message becomes a fun and positive exercise.

3. Prompt

How it works

If you are motivated and have the ability to act, then you’re really close to actual behavioral change. The only thing still required is Prompt. It basically means you need a trigger to push you to take a specific action. It could be an event or a person giving you that final nudge. And preferably, these triggers are recurring, since we are inclined to return to our default behavior, which is the path of least resistance.

How playful activities raise Prompt

By definition an activity triggers you to act. But it’s important to introduce the act at the right time in the process. When you introduce it too early, you may not have enough ability or motivation yet, and no change will happen. Introduce it too late, you may become bored with the activity and will have missed the trigger.


Mobile games are powerful instruments of play, since the phone sensors have the ability to measure your actions. Also, most people have their phones always with them, so sending a recurring push notification helps people to keep doing the intended behavior. After being exposed to the new behavior frequently, it will become our new default behavior. Mission accomplished – we adapted human behavior.

Let’s have fun while making a difference

To survive as humans, we need to act now. But let’s have fun while doing it. And again, we don’t do it for the selfish reasons that play is fun, but because play is a powerful mechanism to behavioral adaptation and change.


If you are someone that plans to raise awareness and skills around a certain sustainability challenge, please consider in your activities how a playful design can trigger your employees, customers, friends and families to act. It will change our lives today, and our lives in the future. Let’s become game changers.

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