Energy Battle! Students Show How Games Can Cut Electric Bills

Would you use less energy if you won money for using the least? For these college students, the answer was an emphatic yes, and the lengths they went to were extraordinary.

Energy Battle! Students Show How Games Can Cut Electric Bills
Tony Campbell/Shutterstock

We’ve written a few times about how games can be used to encourage energy saving–most recently about Opower’s new app.


Adding to the pile of early evidence comes a project in the Netherlands, which shows both the potential benefits of games for efficiency, and, perhaps, their weaknesses.

Researchers at Delft University of Technology recruited 20 student households in Rotterdam, offering prizes to teams that used the least energy over a month-long period. The teams got an energy meter to tell them their real-time consumption, as well as access to a website where they could see their cumulative usage, and how they fared against each other.

The competition had two aspects. First, teams competed to win a prize for overall efficiency, which was 750 euros ($985) worth of kitchen appliances. The second was to build an interesting “construction” in an online game, using “building blocks” they received for reaching certain energy-saving milestones.

The results were striking, at least on the face of it. The winning team cut its energy use by 45%, and the average reduction across the teams was 25%. (Three didn’t finish.)

“The game gives you a motivation to start to do something, rather than it being because you have to do it for the environment,” says Daphne Geelen, one of the researchers. “You can win something. It’s something you can do with your whole household. And it’s a competition. When you find out you’re not doing as well as someone else, you want to try to do better.”

But, Geelen is wary about being too positive. For one, when the researchers went back to check on consumption in the month after the experiment, they found that most of the teams were using near-normal levels of energy, and two had actually started using more energy (possibly out of relief that the contest was over).


That either showed that the teams needed incentives in order to save, or that the game had slightly artificial effects, rather than changing hard-wired habits.

The competition had a bigger effect on some teams than others. Halfway through the contest, some of the teams stopped trying as hard when they realized they were too far behind to win.

And, Geelen is also skeptical about achieving savings as high as 45%–at least not without “drastic” changes. She says the second-placed team was so keen to win that it used only one computer for the whole house, banned TV watching, cooked collectively, and used candles rather than electric light.

She describes such living as “simple.” Others might call it a bit a hard to take.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.