This article was written by Kathryn Blume, Co-Founder of "Vermontivate!" and a panelist on our morning session called "Nonprofit Problem Solvers."
The big question that started the whole thing off was: How do we get Vermont as a whole community to respond immediately to climate change - and at a scale which matches the scope of the problem?
An even bigger question was: How do we unite and integrate all the great organizations, businesses, individuals, and state agencies working on climate and sustainability issues into a collaborative movement?
The biggest question was: Climate change is a colossal bummer, so how do we make all this fun?
Unexpectedly, the answers seemed to lie in a much-beloved TED talk by a woman named Jane McGonigal. Jane is a game designer, and she’s all about Games for Good. She talked about how gaming culture has several elements which could help spark and infuse social movements with gusto, joy, panache, and, of course, success:
- Gamers are used to being given a nearly impossible task as the primary objective of the game.
- Gamers are willing to fail - and fail a lot - before they succeed.
- Gamers are expect to spend huge amounts of time playing the game. In fact, the more addictive, the better!
- Gamers are willing to learn new skills. In fact, they have to in order to play successfully.
- Gamers are willing to collaborate and employ heroic amounts of creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in the pursuit of their nearly-impossible objectives.
And so, we created Vermontivate! - a community sustainability game of epic proportions. Unlike games that most folks are used to which are either on a device (Angry Birds, Halo, Farmville) or in the real world (Poker, Sorry, Charades), Vermontivate! is both.
Players go to the website, where they sign up and create a profile, complete with secret code name. They also sign up for a team. Up to now it’s just been town and school teams, though we’re considering expanding the divisions in upcoming iterations.
Over the course of the game, we put out a series of weekly challenges. Each week has a theme related to climate change and sustainability such as energy, food, transportation, economy, and team-building. All the challenges are built around each week’s theme, and come in five different streams: individual action, community engagement, arts, gratitude, and team-building. We’ve built partnerships with numerous groups working on these issues, and we frequently weave existing partner programs into the challenges so as to maximize real world impact.
Players undertake the challenges by engaging in everything from on-line research to real-world action, then they write about their experience on their profile like a short blog entry, and that’s how they get points. Points are accumulated by each team, and at the end of the game, the winning school gets a six-foot teddy bear from VT Teddybear and the winning town gets an ice cream party from Ben&Jerry’s.
Not all teams are capable of winning the grand prize. Instead, they need to achieve eligibility by having a minimum number of players, a public clubhouse where participants can gather, a public launch event, and sustainability-related goals for their community. We assist the winning teams in achieving one of their goals as part of their Victor’s Booty.
While we know the fundamental structure of the game works well, and appeals to players of all ages and experience levels, still, creating a website which can support all this activity is hardly a simple task. From the beginning, we’ve been on a steep and non-stop learning curve around issues of things like ease of user interface, player-to-player communications, and how to neatly display all the players’ exploits. After all, one of the great strengths of the game is how much players learn from each other. So, making sure that all their Moments of Play are easily available to read and absorb is a serious design challenge.
We’re also very conscious of wanting to be as inclusive as possible. After all, climate change is an all-hands-on-deck situation and one of our primary goals is to help bring as many people into the work of systems transformation as we can. We know that not everyone is on line, and not everyone is comfortable spending large amounts of time in front of a computer.
This is another reason why we ask players to engage in real world action and hold real world events. We want people who don’t play Vermontivate! to still benefit from their community’s participation in the game.
So much of what we’ve learned has to do with looking at the website as not the game itself, but as an invaluable tool for playing the game. The internet is a great aggregator of information and an invaluable channel for mass communications. We wouldn’t be able to create a statewide game of such vast ambition without it. And yet, we know that if you’re going to save the world, you need to fall in love with the world first. That means getting out into it and not staying stuck behind a screen.
There’s a dynamic tension between capturing our players’ attention and keeping them active on the site, but also getting them to go out and Do Good Stuff. Fortunately, we know that those points of inherent structural friction can also ignite sparks of immense creativity - both for us and for our players.