Utrecht University: Reducing energy bills with a serious game

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Gamification can lead to lasting behaviour changes. That is the conclusion of a recent PhD study by Jan Dirk Fijnheer at Utrecht University. Households that played his game Powersaver Game saved up to 30 percent more energy than households that used an energy-savings app without game elements. Fijnheer will defend his dissertation on Wednesday, 7 September 2022.

It won’t be long before we turn on the heat again, and considering today’s energy prices many households are dreading that moment. Energy conservation is more important than ever. But how can you reduce your energy consumption and ensure that the reduction is permanent? In his PhD research, Jan Dirk Fijnheer demonstrates that playing a digital serious game results in long-term behaviour changes. “I’m convinced that an average household can reduce their energy consumption by one third. But it won’t happen automatically. You have to learn how, and that takes time. A game can make that happen in an entertaining and effective manner.”

I’m convinced that an average household can reduce their energy consumption by one third

Jan Dirk Fijnheer, PhD

Connected energy meter
Fijnheer’s research is based on the Powersaver Game: an online game that challenges households to reduce their energy consumption for a few weeks with concrete savings activities. The household’s smart energy meter is linked to the game, so participants can immediately see their results. Fijnheer compared a total of almost 50 households. Some of them played the Powersaver Game, while others received the exact same information via an energy-savings app, but without the game elements.

Lasting effect
The experiments demonstrated that the Powersaver Game helped households save up to 30 percent more energy than households that used an energy-savings app. And after playing the game, they kept up the conservation activities for longer than the households in the control group. Results showed that the participants were also more involved. The households who played competitively saved even more energy.

It’s much better to use large appliances when the sun is shining and more energy is available from solar panels

Jan Dirk Fijnheer, PhD
Artificial intelligence
The research shows that gamification can change behaviour, and that certain game elements can enhance that effect. Over the next few years, Fijnheer aims to study whether serious games can be optimised further to stimulate sustainable behaviour, for example with artificial intelligence. Fijnheer: “Artificial intelligence can offer good prognoses for future behaviour: if you do this now, then you’ll save this much later on. I expect that’ll have a coaching effect.”

Influencing moments of energy consumption
Fijnheer also plans on studying whether a serious game can influence the moments of energy consumption. That is an important factor in the area of the energy transition. “For example, it’s much better to use large appliances, like dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, when the sun is shining and more energy is available from solar panels. However, hanging clothes out to dry in nice weather is of course the most sustainable option.” This phase of the project is part of the larger GAIM project at Utrecht University, which was awarded an NWO grant external link in March 2022.

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