There’s an app for that

© Sunflowerey |

Led by private, non-profit, and academic partners, water professionals have begun tapping into the power and potential of ‘gamification’ to engage customers, conserve resources, and restore a shared sense of communal responsibility among water users

By James Workman

Primal instinct makes us measure and elevate our status in the world. It also hardwires us to compete and play. Now society taps both innate cravings whenever you check your smartphone.

A few swipes and keystrokes can let you unlock ‘special’ rewards by ordering coffee, show your fitness has risen to ‘all-star’ class, upgrade to ‘silver’ when booking a flight, download films as a ‘prime’ customer, get a ‘gold’ hotel perk, and rack up points for every credit card dollar. Each compulsive click releases endorphins, so if ranking feels addictive, that’s also by design.

Welcome to gamification, which embraces the use of such ranking and rewards to engage people in non-game situations and win desired outcomes including a change in behaviour. Researchers say 70 percent of the world’s largest 2000 firms have at least one gamified application.

But whereas most apps fuel individual efforts to consume disposable goods and services alone, the opposite is true for water. Games help us to understand how we can share, save, and value our sources of water.

“Water is different,” says Jacob Tompkins, Managing Director of Waterwise, a UK water efficiency NGO. “Yes, some elements of gaming can be transferred from supermarket or airline or hotel sectors, but in water we are generally trying to drive pro-environmental behaviour, rather than encourage people to spend.”

Designed right, games have an irresistible pull. So resource managers have begun wading in with experimental versions of gamified tools at individual, urban, and geopolitical scales. These range from iPhone apps that anchor household demand to diplomatic role-playing over Middle Eastern aquifers.

“Playing games has been a natural way of learning ever since we were kids,” says Andrea Cominola, a visiting bioengineer in watershed sciences at the University of California, Davis, who helped create a water-saving game. “Therefore serious games look to develop tools with a great potential to be exploited for pursuing people’s awareness about water-related issues.”

A variety of public and private entities are now using gamification to increase such awareness. Companies like GabiH2O, and EcoAction have used games for water efficiency. Physical products like Oasys, or Amphiro’s shower devices use game elements to provide point-of-use data. Waterwise and the technology firm, Advizzo, have begun to gamify customer data with point and reward schemes and UN agencies are gamifying their training programmes. In the UK, even regulators Ofwat and the Environment Agency are encouraging water companies to gamify innovation.

The key drivers are institutional, technological, educational and even, yes, existential.

Institutional reality is broken 
Water institutions seem an unlikely adopter of customer engagement tools. Gamification offers an edge in competitive markets, while water systems are natural monopolies. Why would an irrigation district or utility need to offer loyalty points to clients who have nowhere else to go?

The answer is that relationships within water agencies are already changing. Managers must engage interest groups, meet opposition, negotiate, and be able to transfer knowledge. Games help utilities enlist broad support for safe and secure provision. If regulators deny rate increases and inhibit cost recovery, games help restore value to water and sanitation services.

“Gamified apps for customer engagement are coming of age in the water sector,” says Tompkins. “As we move away from the Victorian paradigm of water companies as service providers to passive customers, to a new situation in which customer engagement is needed to deliver solutions, new methods of real engagement are required and gamification seems to fit the bill.”

Andrea Cominola, holding a water conservation game designed by Spartaco Albertarelli, founder of KaleidosGames © Andrea Cominola
Andrea Cominola, holding a water conservation game designed by Spartaco Albertarelli, founder of KaleidosGames
© Andrea Cominola

In water’s non-commercial context, gamification helps reduce consumption, says Ben Schouten, industrial design professor for playful interaction, Eindhoven University. Resource managers, says Schouten, “are interested in gamification because they see that ‘their solutions’ do not fit anymore.” Utilities can drive voluntary conservation-minded behaviour. Within closed irrigation districts and natural monopolies, their games can spark rivalry and change the usage patterns of farmers, hotel guests, neighbours and work colleagues.

Technological tools fill the void
Managers who seek positive engagement are often too busy reacting to customers angry over a burst main, clogged pipe, rate hike, or mandatory rationing. Tight budgets, regulatory constraints, and overworked staff get in the way of proactive outreach.

But technology unlocks new potential. Entering a web/mobile or even board game world of make believe is liberating and informative. Customers can try, and fail, and try again without fear of ridicule. “Games move problems from reality to a virtual playground where players are usually more free to act,” says Cominola.

Gamification helps people break routines, to see water through a different lens. There is no exposure to social risk if you compete against yourself, your family, or anonymous strangers. Meanwhile, utilities learn from all these attempts what works, at no economic opportunity cost.

The technology also allows utilities to collect, organise and leverage information generated by water users. “The water sector is awash with big data but to turn this into smart data and ultimately into insight we need to engage with customers,” explains Tomkins. “The standard gamification methods of points, badges and leaderboards will work to do this.”

Educational data can be fun But in fact gamification can push all parties even further. It can unlock citizen science in a positive feedback loop, where water users become producers, consumers, and analysts of data.

Ben Schouten, industrial design professor for playful interaction, Eindhoven University © Bart van Overbeeke
Ben Schouten, industrial design professor for playful interaction, Eindhoven University © Bart van Overbeeke

“Information comes alive through stories and procedures,” says Schouten. And games, like stories, cement lessons in place, because “interactive technologies are different. Data by itself is not interesting anymore; it is what you can do or learn from it. Games are context machines mediated in smartphones, through which ‘they’ can be alive everywhere, always on.”

Models and platforms recreate the fabric of a real situation, and assign parts to negotiate and cooperate toward a mutually agreed-upon action and outcome.

Knowledge may indeed be power. But it is hard to absorb or retain words and numbers that are simply hurled at you. Good games, like good teachers, persuade people to want to internalise new information, by linking facts to outcomes, and making the lesson playful.

Someone who is a water ‘end user’ implies a passive, terminal, one-way absorption. Games animate the relationship, making it dynamic.  By encouraging free will, choices and hard decisions, says Cominola, “games are a good tool for involving stakeholders and users and to make them assume an active role”.

Tapping the existential outlook
Reduce demand. Value services. Map needs. Ensure safety. Share resources. Save money. These are utterly worthy goals for players to strive for and enjoy. Yet, gamification doesn’t always have a clearly defined outcome or offer a pedagogic lesson.

Often the point is for players to ask and decide what the rules should be, how to enforce them, and where they fit into the puzzle. “That is where I am interested,” says Schouten. “How to organise the individual to the communal in relationship to the institutions.”

This is counterintuitive. The paradox of water games and apps is that rather than turn people inward away from society and nature, they may be a means to build new resource management communities with group responsibility and collective action. One European Commission project aims to ‘democratise water’ through the use of ICT data feedback and game elements. “We are using data sharing as a catalyst to bring people together to discuss water,” says Tompkins of Waterwise. United Utilities and Severn Trent Water in the UK, for example, are exploring gamification for community engagement on water efficiency, as apps set challenges and reward reductions in shower-time based on a song playlist that reduces by a set amount each day.

Gamification comes alive through its focus on the shared journey, rather than a destination. Many water professionals devote each day to staring at a screen alone in a cubicle processing emails and data. It remains important and even satisfying work, but a far cry from the context in which we evolved: interacting in a community to solve problems through collaboration.

To be sure, many popular online virtual games still do offer solitary escapism. But the best do the opposite: they help us re-engage in the real world, sensing choices and making decisions through a lens on what Schouten calls “affinity spaces, themes that we think are important”.

The distinction is vital. Far from offering crass commercial fantasies, ‘serious game’ designers like Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, explain the psychology behind our willingness to surmount unnecessary obstacles as a deep need for measurable goals.

The ideal is to adopt the power of games to enact meaningful outcomes in water. After all, “the opposite of play isn’t work,” she writes. “It’s depression.”