Beyond kWh: Myths and fixes for energy competition game design

Philip Johnson, Robert Brewer, George Lee, Yongwen Xu, Carleton Moore and Michelle Katchuck


The Kukui Cup project investigates the use of 'meaningful play' to facilitate energy awareness, conservation and behavioral change. Each Kukui Cup Challenge combines real world and online environments in an attempt to combine information technology, game mechanics, educational pedagogy, and incentives in a synergistic and engaging fashion. We challenge players to: (1) acquire more sophistication about energy concepts and (2) experiment with new behaviors ranging from micro (such as turning off the lights or installing a CFL) to macro (such as taking energy-related courses, joining environmental groups, and political/social advocacy.)

To inform the design of the inaugural 2011 Kukui Cup, we relied heavily on prior collegiate energy competitions, of which there have been over 150 in the past few years. Published accounts of these competitions indicate that they achieve dramatic reductions in energy usage (a median of 22%) and cost savings of tens of thousands of dollars. In our case, the data collected from the 2011 Kukui Cup was generally in agreement, with observed energy reductions of up to 16% when using data collection and analysis techniques typical to these competitions. However, our analysis process caused us to look more closely at the methods employed to produce outcome data for energy competitions, with unexpected results.

We now believe that energy competitions make significant unwarranted assumptions about the data they collect and the way they analyze them, which calls into question both the accuracy of published results from this literature and their effectiveness as serious games. We believe a closer examination of these issues by the community can help improve the design not only of future energy challenges, but other similar forms of serious games for sustainability.

In this paper, we describe the Kukui Cup, the design myths it uncovered, and the fixes we propose to improve future forms of meaningful play with respect to energy in particular and serious games in general.