Finding Your Place: How Mobile Games and Social Media can Redefine Climate Change and Community

The following are my slides and speech which I presented at the Local and Mobile conference in Raleigh, North Carolina in March of this year. Video should be available on the website soon. I indicate slide changes with the term “[Slide].” Enjoy!


View more PowerPoint from Maxwell Foxman

How Mobile Games and Social Media can Redefine Climate Change and Community

According to the International Energy Agency, our climate reality will be permanently reshaped within the next five years. Many scientists predict that world temperature will rise 2 degrees Celsius, causing permanent and irreversible change to our climate system. As nations continue to industrialize and increase their carbon footprints, we further “lock in” the inevitable collapse of our climate.  


No single nation can alter global climate destiny alone. Finding balance requires new modes of thinking about how to engage with the global climate reality. Just as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements are transforming global discourse about how citizens can influence their governments, grassroots movements may prove the only effective path to reimagine the relationship between the individual and global climate. Since current faltering attempts at economic incentive and governmental leadership have not incurred lasting change, I advocate a new approach focused on play.

Using a theoretical framework I have entitled “Climate Balance through Play,” I will illustrate how current successful climate projects engage users through play and how the emergence of mobile technology, specifically, has opened new possibilities for play as a means to achieve climate balance. Indeed, mobile technology can be a driving force to bring “Climate Balance Through Play” into the larger cultural realm.  

“Climate Balance Through Play” is a rhetorical and habitual shift from conservation to expenditure. Taking an approach from Paul Edwards, author of A Vast Machine, I regard climate as a full system, integrating local and global networks. Edwards, however, acknowledges the difficulty of any individual comprehending such a network. According to Bruno Latour in The Politics of Nature, insight can only be found through a sense of climate “collectivity” between humans and non-humans. No longer can climate be abstracted within the context of local, national and international systems, but must be assimilated into everyday life. This is particularly true within the reality of what has been called the Anthropocene, the new age within which man is the primary force influencing ecological change on the planet and ultimately dictating future climatic effects. While humanity’s influence on environmental change has increased, so has its ability to create a more interconnected understandings of the world. As Edwards suggests, if the climate can be envisioned within the context of vast networked systems, we have reached a point where such a collectivity is possible – the Internet age.


Within this networked system, play is a primary rhetorical and active device. It is deployed through a multitude of websites and applications, gamifying everything from social life to business and education. Ultimately, using a game-centered approach could open a new frontier for dealing with the climate; however, to do so would require a philosophical shift from conservation, a concept that coexists well within economic dogma that prioritizes individual savings, to expenditure. A player must expend energy without the guarantee of reward, while hoping to achieve mastery over his expenditure and utilize it effectively. Such expenditure should not be confused with “waste.” What I am promoting is expenditure on behalf of the environment, not expending the environment for the sake of humanity.

Drawing inspiration from the potlatch, as explained by Bataille and Mauss, I contend that expenditure is an inherent component of economy, activity and society. In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga notes that the Latin term for play “covers children’s games, recreation, contests, liturgical and theatrical representations, and games of chance.”

Play as expenditure is manifested in all facets of local life in the potlatch. To truly be successful, finding climate balance through play must be considered less a philosophical perspective and more a state of being, or as I suggest, a “state of play,” which would require acts of expenditure to be practiced and assimilated into everyday life to achieve climate balance. Furthermore, like the potlatch, this state of play would need to be decentralized, the product of individual and local activity for the sake of climate as a whole. Examples are present in some current localized movements: acts of play have had tremendous importance within Occupy Wall Street, in which the “play” of the human microphone incites crowd involvement. Similarly, playful activity in Belgrade was exercised to destabilize the regime of Slobodan Milošević when competition over who could make more noise disrupted propagandist radio broadcasts.

Games provide the structure, the symbols and the rules by which people can play, and games can be reevaluated and changed through an iterative process. Local movements and video games, which Alenda Chang defines as “environmental texts,” might be viewed as the first iteration of large scale systems that could convey a state of play to larger populations.


In the quest to expand its network, current technology has developed new contexts for engaging in play. For instance, newly conceived social media applications such as Foursquare have created the environment for behavior I term “proximal communication,” in which communication is expressed through users’ proximity to each other, or their relationship in time and space. This proximal communication is articulated within the context of a “broadcast” over Foursquare’s networks. The interaction between users’ broadcasts creates an atmosphere of interpersonal competition. In this way, communication is both localized and networked within the world wide web. The success of Foursquare and other location-based social media is that they are individualized and decentralized. In these applications, communication and competition depend on mobile technology, in which the user’s presence can be announced and verified instantaneously.

In order to grasp play as a model for dealing with climate change and utilising methods like proximal communication, I will focus on the The Climate Reality Project’s “Gaming for Good” competition. 


Conducted in part with the consultancy group PSFK, the competition was initiated to take advantage of games based on mobile technology and real world data. Al Gore, founder of the Climate Reality Project, launched the contest, believing games to be a new arena for innovation with which to address climate change.

The Climate Reality Project’s competition espoused the same core objectives as my “Climate Balance Through Play.” The contestants needed to deploy “gamification tools that individuals, communities, organizations and nations can use to embed this new reality” of climate collapse into each life. The project envisioned games as a new means of communing and affecting climate change, where previous traditional national and international efforts had failed.

The contest solicited strategies that would build awareness, promote fundraising, embed knowledge, introduce users to new schools of thought and improve everyday personal behavior.

Of the 60 projects that were submitted, finalists presented a variety of different manifestations on how to “gamify” the quest for climate balance. Among these were:


  • Greensquare: Based on mobile technology (namely Foursquare’s API), users supplement their Foursquare check-ins with eco-evaluations, rating businesses on their environmental footprint and highlighting their findings through the software. While providing a clearly articulated set of values, Greensquare doesn’t motivate its users to participate in any particular activity.


  • Climate Reality Patrol: In this proposal, users compete in finding and denoting information and misinformation about the climate on the worldwide web through tags. The total number of  tags posted by each user is tallied on a leaderboard. This idea precipitates competition over the subject of climate change, but keeps the interaction completely in the realm of information and less in experience.


  • Sprout: Sprout records individual users’ fiscal expenses in terms of their green impact, providing rewards and badges for expenditures on behalf of the environment. While the application engages with everyday life and bestows game-like rewards, it lacks a truly competitive element, unlike Climate Reality Patrol, in which users actually duel with each other.



Perhaps the most successful entry is the RealiTree project. Stark Design’s scheme is to place large scale digital displays of virtual trees in major cities throughout the country. In its proposal, Stark creates a rendering of New York City’s RealiTree, replacing neon advertisements with a virtual tree several stories high in the heart of Times Square. Each RealiTree is illustrative of the current ecological wellness of its local environment. Utilizing information technology, the tree wilts or flourishes, loses or gains leaves, based on climate changes as well as input by users. A user can track the progress of his tree’s health through a mobile application. The data used to update the state of each tree is culled from aggregated statistical information, current events and user input through a variety of social media networks.


Users could contribute points to promote the well-being of their local tree by checking into green-friendly locales on Foursquare. Furthermore, users are able to form networks, which are displayed in the roots of the tree, creating solidarity within teams. Stark Design also encourages corporations to use the network to publicize their climate balance initiatives. The attraction of the game is that the trees have localized relevance, while allowing users be part of a global movement competing for the health of the planet. 


Critical reception for RealiTree has been, to some degree, positive. One website said of RealiTree: “a prominent, interactive indicator that reflects global and local climate health could be a powerful tool indeed, especially if it could effectively entice communal participation.” Ultimately, RealiTree mandates major financial investment for installations in town centers and remarkable user loyalty to become a long-term success, as committed user involvement is requisite to sustain the tree’s life. Ideally, users would become cognizant of how changes in climate affect them locally, especially when they witness their tree’s growth modified by world events, local industry, and user involvement.

Furthermore, the game is self-perpetuating. Stark Design advertises its product to be on “constant” display; since it reacts to environmental data in real-time, it is perennially in flux. The tree can’t ever be “fixed,” but will change its shape and condition based on many stimuli, including how actively users participate in its fate.

Finally, this endeavor has the potential for a truly networked understanding of climate collectivity. As a repository of local information, personal check-ins, social communication, and international climate developments, the RealiTree is a complete localized climatic experience, bridging the gap between what is experienced climatically everyday and the broad global activity that effects climate change. This project fully engages participants by offering them a consistent state of play, rather than merely deploying game elements. As Stark Design advertises, RealiTree could become “a huge Tamagotchi which thousands of people care for.”


However, like the Tamagotchi, RealiTree does have some design flaws, including substantial initial costs, local approval, large-scale construction, and encouraging and maintaining interest. Indeed, long-term involvement is primary to the success of both the project and the larger goal of finding climate balance through play. However, this concept is an innovative success in building a networked combination of locality and mobility, visualizing the networked activity that creates the climate collective and presenting a means by which to pursue climate balance through play.


In comparison, The Soccket, made by Uncharted Play, is a real-world product that utilizes play and game elements in order to deal with the realities and effects of climate change on local economies. The Soccket’s goal is to provide self-sustaining energy to those parts of the world where such energy is limited. The Soccket itself is a soccer ball that houses a sophisticated power generator capable of storing electricity produced when players interact with the ball. The Soccket can create a significant amount of energy, with 30 minutes of typical play producing three hours of light from an LED lamp. While fairly inconsequential in the developed world, the Soccket’s power can engender meaningful changes in developing countries, such as powering LED lamps that replace older kerosene lamps, which emit carcinogenic fumes. Unfortunately, Socckets are too expensive to be purchased by the people who need them the most. Each ball costs $60, and they are distributed through donations to impoverished communities.

However, unlike the “Gaming for Good” projects, which utilize mobile and internet technology to create a platform for complex play within a networked collective, the Soccket uses a hallmark of play, the soccer ball, to produce a tangible result on a local scale. 


In the effort to establish climate balance, localization is essential to engage individuals on a personal level. Since play ultimately stems from individual effort and expenditure, play is an important avenue to achieve personalization and localization of these efforts. The new possibilities of mobile technology can provide true visuality for climate collectivity through worldwide networked products. Users are able to play with and discern local elements rather than trying to infer them on a global scale, a monumental achievement because locality is the foundation for understanding climate. Users connected by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter engage with these programs because of their local content, following friends first and foremost, even as such software redefines the term “friend.” The RealiTree facilitates local communities to compete on a larger scale, joining these communities within one platform. With Facebook and other media sources capturing the attention of millions of users and building a worldwide network of interaction, competition in visualizing climate could be transformative. 


This analysis is meant to emphasize the prevalence of play elements already being implemented through network technology on behalf of climate change. Climate Balance Through Play will benefit greatly from mobile technologies, and this approach offers a sense of place and presence in the larger context of the climate and a sense of collectivity and visualization of the environment. Indeed, this framework has the potential for establishing a long-term set of practices to fight climate change by expending and competing over how much people do, not how much they save, on behalf of the environment.

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One thought on “Finding Your Place: How Mobile Games and Social Media can Redefine Climate Change and Community

  1. […] a previous post, I included slides and notes from a presentation I gave at the Local and Mobile Conference earlier […]

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