Sustainable Gamification: Five Days With The Kukui Cup Demo

Gamification, as I discussed in a previous post, can mean many different things that depend on how cynical or optimistic you are about the use of game design elements to drive user participation in things which are not usually considered game-like or fun. Proponents of a culture of “serious games” like Jane McGonigal argue that gamification can drive positive social change by getting people to change their behavior almost without realizing it, while others like Ian Bogost argue that gamification is just the latest in a long line of buzzword-laden advertising techniques which con readers into helping spread a company’s message at little or no compensation to themselves. It is generally agreed, however, that gamification appropriates the look and feel of a game to manipulate users into increasing a behavior. The goal of Makahiki is to increase sustainability.

General Gameplay

Since 2011, Makahiki has been used to design and manage the Kukui Cup, an annual sustainability competition held in the freshman residential towers each year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The Makahiki activity board, Level 1.

Above: Part of the Makahiki activity board. Here, “Get Started” activities teach new players how the game works, “Just Do It” activities promote the game on social networks, and the last two columns give points for promising to adopt sustainable habits or attend events. Users can display the site in one of several themes.

Makahiki allows four types of events: those in which the user answers questions about a video or data pulled from energy sensors, those in which the user promotes the game on social media or does other activities which promote the game’s message of sustainability, those in which the user makes a commitment to try to follow sustainable habits for a day, and those in which the user commits to attend an event.

Gamification Through Social Integration

Players are encouraged to advertise their participation on Facebook and Twitter during the starting tutorial, and rewarded with additional points for doing so. This helps spread the Kukui Cup’s message of sustainability to the players’ social networks.

A notification.

Above: The player is asked to share an accomplishment on Facebook.

In the actual Kukui Cup, there were rewards for the team (as determined by building and floor) with the lowest energy use, which encouraged cooperation to reduce it.

Energy metering.

Above: Energy usage in real-time. Note the suggestion that the player complete additional activities to earn more points. This would offset the points earned by the team in a building with lower energy use.

To further encourage cooperation, we were allowed to name another user when we signed up for the social commitments (recycling cans, using task lighting, etc.). Upon completing the activity, we would both get additional points. This opens the emergent gameplay possibility of students working together to add each other for social bonuses when they make commitments. In a non-demonstration setting with more players, this helps drive up participation across the board by getting people to make and hopefully follow their commitments in teams. Users may think they are exploiting the system, but in this case the change in behavior is perfectly in line with the goals of the Kukui Cup project.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

One of the main principles of gamification is giving users constant feedback. Makahiki does not disappoint. Virtually every completed action results in a notification, whether as a banner, popup, or badge award. This feedback provides positive (though intangible) psychological reinforcement for completing an activity, and is designed to frequently suggest what the user should do next. Badges are awarded for tasks such as finishing commitments, attending events, or getting your team participation to a certain level.

Badge notification.

Above: The White Hat badge is awarded for finding a bug.

Makahiki also gives points for giving feedback on each question, and offers the White Hat badge for reporting a legitimate bug. This system rewards users for reporting problems, which makes it easier to detect issues and define what users want from the application.

Intangible Rewards and Reinforcement: Leaderboards Ahoy

Though the actual version of the Kukui Cup offered physical items, pizza parties, and other incentives as prizes to be won in a raffle or by reaching a goal as a team, many gamified systems do not. Ian Bogost blasts these systems as "exploitationware": unlike their predecessors, the loyalty programs (think frequent flyer miles or store discount cards), they rely only on badges, points, and scoreboards to provide a feeling of accomplishment, giving users few rewards they can actually redeem for products and services. From a more neutral point of view, consultant Tadhg Kelly notes that non-physical “rewards” like filling progress bars, badges, and quest achievements can be designed to give the user incentive to explore every feature of the site.

A quest.

One of the first quests. Finishing the activity for the videos it mentions earns points, and finishing the quest earns more points. This gets the user to learn how to complete video activities.

The game’s third and most prevalent means of recognizing user accomplishment, apart from badges and constant notifications, are the leaderboards – one on the main “Get Nutz” activity page, and one as a banner that appears on every page.

Animated loop of the leaderboards.

Above: The progress of players and their groups is tracked in real-time and displayed on a leaderboard.

Leaderboards provide reinforcement by showing players how their standing is increasing over time, and provide a small encouragement to continue playing by showing you how far you still have to go to reach the top. Personally, I find few things more frustrating in a game than the feeling of constantly being just behind the leaders in an arcade-style, points-based game, and it is when I feel that I am “almost there” that I am most likely to keep playing later. In the Kukui Cup, the personal pressure to get high scores is lower (it’s not a game that students would choose to play if it were not part of living in the freshman dorms) but probably still there.

Leaderboards midway through Day 1.

Above: The leaderboards partway through the first day of the demo, February 27.

Tadhg Kelly notes that many social applications have a select group of users who do every task that is given to them, whether out of boredom, excess time on their hands, or some other reason. Often these users spend inordinate amounts of money as well. What might be more worrying to administrators in a real competition is that just 20% of expected users had played any of the activities, and the two of us were driving most of the point totals. The goal of a gamified system should be to increase some behavior measurably for the majority of users, not just a select few. For a for-profit game, increasing activity across the board means more sales. For an awareness-raising, nonprofit game, increasing activity across the board is likely to lead to increased awareness of issues or causes. (All joking aside, whoever is playing as Derpy Hooves, I salute you.)

Derpy Hooves breaks the sound barrier.

Above: Every gamified application has a few high-profile users who do all the available tasks, earn all the points, and generally do whatever is thrown at them, overtaking all others. In short, every application has its Derpys. Image source (just the Concordes): Russian LiveJournal page.

As the demo continued, the points started to even out, and by the end of the third day, my team, Lehua-B, was in first place. Most people earned about 40 to 100 points, but a lot of medium activity (we reached 60% participation) makes for a higher total, and more page views, than one or two high scorers.


The Kukui Cup was engaging for me mainly because the activities were simple and the stream of background notifications reminded me of what tasks were available to do next; sustainable habits were presented in bite-sized chunks requiring minimal time commitment. One could argue that this kind of game doesn’t foster real, long-term sustainable habits, since its commitments last only a day and there is no verification system. However, changing a person’s habits over the long term is a difficult task for any form of media, and I think that the low point value of the commitments is appropriate to their difficulty level. More difficult tasks like writing letters to the editor have a justifiably high point value for their difficulty, and even during a real competition few people would attempt them – but the small percentage that do may be more engaged with sustainability issues in the future.

What struck me the most about Kukui Cup was how easy it was to play. The notification system and quests essentially hold the player’s hand at the beginning of the game, serving as a dynamically generated instruction manual to its features. I don’t see much room for improvement in the way the game is currently played. The interface is so complex, however, that I wonder how easy it is to actually customize it. If Makahiki is going to be a general-purpose sustainability game framework, organizations that are using it for themselves are going to want customization, and they are going to want the setup process to be easy. Many websites like LinkedIn follow a similar model to the Kukui Cup’s setup process, where a progress bar is filled as the user adds information to a profile and finishes setting up an account. It would be an interesting project to see if the setup process for an application, which often involves setting user preferences or entering other information, could itself be “gamified” in a similar way.