The world is over. Time to save it.

Interview with Garben Kijne by Anthony Colclough

We did our best to save the world, but now it’s too late for that. Our civilisation has decayed, our cities are destroyed, and it’s up to us to roam the morass of our fallen nations, scavenging what we can to rebuild from the ground up. This is the premise of the game Age of Energy, which, developed as part of the CityZen project and piloted in Amsterdam, landed its creator Garben Kijne on the Forbes 30 under 30 list of young people to look out for. I caught up with Kijne to find out more about the game, and how it is harnessing its addictive power to cajole young people into energy saving behaviour.

Kijne: Our thought was, what if it doesn’t matter if people care about energy saving, but they do it anyway? The game is called the Age of energy. It works very similarly to a lot of existing ‘city-builder’ games. You’re stuck in this post-apocalyptic world and you have to rebuild society, and you can choose to do that in a sustainable or a non-sustainable way. It’s based on the model of these popular games that are all free to download. Then they get you hooked on the game and then ask you to pay 99c to get better items, or get a better building. In our game, instead of asking users to pay for extra stuff, we ask people to try to save a little bit of energy.

So energy becomes the currency?

Right. We gradually increase the amount of energy you need to save to get rewards. After a couple of weeks we play back to people, ‘actually, since you started playing, you probably haven’t noticed, but you’ve saved this amount of energy’. You do these energy saving actions for a couple of weeks in a row every day and then it sort of becomes part of your system. You don’t even think about shutting off the lights when you leave the room, you just do it. That’s the theory.

And the game uses smart meters to make sure you’re really doing it?

There’s a connection to some proprietary smart-meter technology. Whether people turn on or off lights is detected by the game. You can have a mission that says ‘just turn on or off the light now for ten points in the game’ and the game can check via the smart meter whether that’s done or not.

We actually separated this game into two versions, one that you can play without a smart meter and one that you play with the smart meter. But obviously not everyone has the same smart meters, which means we have to write more custom code every time we want the game to connect to a different kind of smart meter. The lack of standardisation among types of smart meters is one of the biggest challenges for our model.

So your phone knows if your lights are on or off. Doesn’t that raise a red flag for privacy?

We follow all the regulations on this kind of stuff, all the data is checked on your local device, on your phone, and then the points are awarded, and then it’s deleted, so even if someone hacked into our system they wouldn’t see anything.

But you are collecting some data, right?

Well, your smart-meter collecting data doesn’t mean that we, as a game company, have access to it. An idea that we’re playing with a little bit is getting people to gather information that’s difficult to get from a big-data perspective. If you look at the real-time loads of smart meters you can get a lot of quite specific information, for example you can tell if a washing machine will need replacing soon. But there’s a lot of information that’s really useful from an energy perspective that the data is blind to.

So, for example, the idea was that we could maybe get kids to go down to the basement and take a picture of their parents’ boiler so we could determine if it was worth replacing, or ask them whether or not their home had double glazing.

Okay, and the game has this double function of getting people to change their behaviour and their perspective.

Our initial assignment that we received was ‘how can we have young people understand the importance of saving the planet’. That was a very paternalistic question because it assumed that they don’t care, which is not true at all, of course they do. But they’re not always motivated enough to change their own behaviour. So we changed the outlook to: What can we do to change their behaviour.

These other commercial games are very successful commercially, so they spend millions and millions of euros on the development of these games. We’re a tiny team of ten people that’s trying to build a game that competes with those games. So it’s really been up to us to create a game which is engaging yet simple, and striking that balance has been a challenge.

And if you’re not asking for money, what’s the business model?

There are plenty of organisation like grid operators or energy providers that would benefit from a better control of demand, so we’re looking at working together with them. Especially because the energy market is being privatised, so a lot of energy providers are having to engage with customers a lot more and are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from others. We’re hoping that there might be a business model for us to work with.

The game was piloted in Amsterdam; how have people reacted?

Well, we used co-design workshops with users, schoolkids, who gave us feedback on the game, but they also helped to design it. The decision for the theme of the game was based on user feedback. We asked them whether we should do a shooting game or a racing game, whether it should be themed around zombies or pirates. It was the users who preferred the city building game model and the post-apocalyptic theme.

To finish, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but isn’t an obvious criticism that by playing the game you’re actually using up more energy than you save by turning off you lights?

Yeah, I think it’s more about growing behaviour change. I mean, kids are playing these games anyway, so it’s an improvement if they’re playing one with a positive message. But the idea is to change people’s habits, so you’ll only play this game for a couple of months, but our hope is that the behaviour change will be permanent.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer