Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Turn up the Heat board game

Turn Up the Heat is one of the games that Horn and professor Reed Stevens have created to raise awareness of environmental sustainability. Their innovative games combine the tradition of board games with today’s digital technology.

Designing Games for Social Change

By Marilyn Sherman
Designing Games for Social Change

When families gather to play board games, they want to have fun. At the same time, though, they may pick up some serious attitude change on social issues.

Historically many popular board games originated with a social purpose or to convey moral values. For example, Monopoly was created as a social justice game to raise awareness about affordable rents, land taxes and tenants’ rights. Chutes and Ladders grew out of an early game depicting moral lessons along a life journey with vices and virtues.

SESP professors Mike Horn and Reed Stevens are putting a new spin on this old board game tradition by designing innovative games for creating social change today. They employ a uniquely 21st-century approach that takes advantage of new technology but also relies on the established blueprint of the board game.

Currently, Horn and Stevens are creating games to nudge forward progress on environmental issues with a project called Green Home Games, where they invent games to enlighten families about energy issues in an enjoyable way. Their multi-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Games provide a good opportunity to support family learning,” Horn says. In the process of providing entertainment, Horn and Stevens’s energy games open eyes to such ideas as assessing electricity use, conserving energy and the value of sustainability. They see sustainability as an important issue to tackle because people’s choices today will have a major impact on human health and well-being in the future.

Game changers

Lighthearted scenarios in games featuring ghosts, monsters, vampires and animals can attract kids and their parents to engage with serious environmental issues. For example, the spin of a weather dial can immerse a family in solving energy dilemmas. Hunting imaginary monsters can teach about slashing energy use.

Horn and Stevens’s award-winning Turn Up the Heat game even creates drama around setting the thermostat. Players vie for comfort and green points as they juggle the tradeoffs involved in staying comfortable, saving money and conserving energy. All the while they trace the impact of their decisions on the environment. As a bonus, an Internet thermostat can be used to actually program the home thermostat. “We’re seeing great, rich discussion among family members as they play,” says Horn.

Another game, called Ghost Hunter, is a takeoff on Hide and Seek that teaches about electricity use. Kids wield an electromagnetic field detector that beeps when it senses electricity consumption, and they experiment with what happens when appliances and lights are turned off and on.

In the game Energy Vampires, it’s a dark and lonely night when suddenly a light turns on. The family home is being invaded by energy monsters, and the object is to track down unnecessary uses of energy before it’s too late.

Beyond video games

Unlike many video games, these games hinge on interpersonal interaction for the purpose of teaching and learning. Horn relishes the collaborative aspect of board games because families sit together, talk, argue and have fun. This process can also encourage more serious discussions about energy consumption, he says.

Although Horn acknowledges that most of the games being developed today are video games, he thinks video games sometimes have a narrow focus. He sees “a much broader and richer range of games we can draw upon.”

“We think the board game is a great anchoring activity for families to talk about issues in a way that video games don’t promote,” he notes. “We use digital technology to play into the ways people play together.”

Part of the appeal of Horn’s games is that they blend the old with the new. “We’re using board games as our anchoring cultural form and then technology like iPads to tie into the real household infrastructure,” he says. Some of the games may be downloaded as free apps at

Reshaping values

Over the long term, Horn hopes that energy games can contribute to a shift in cultural values. Changes in attitudes come from many different sources, and he envisions that games can be one of them. “We’re seeing these games as part of a broader change in values related to the way we think about the environment and sustainability,” he says. Horn anticipates a change in attitudes toward environmental issues that will parallel the shift in values about smoking. Over a number of years, public health campaigns, laws and experiences with illness all contributed to the change in the acceptability of smoking. “Someday the idea of disposable plastic cups and silverware may evoke the same reaction of ‘unacceptable’ as lighting up a cigarette in the office,” he says.

“Sustainability is a complex, tricky issue,” Horn adds. “Each individual decides based on needs, capabilities and opportunities. So these games can help families start discussions.”

Design for change

To be effective, games must be developed carefully with input from many different sources. Horn’s design process takes about a year to develop a game that’s fun and playable. Horn follows a three-step procedure. First, he play-tests multiple models to find one that’s most enjoyable and viable. Then he tests the best model with families of diverse backgrounds and income levels, making improvements as he goes along.

Finally, he studies whether the game leads to actual behavior change. Does the game actually spur families to think differently about how they use energy in their homes? Will the game have an environmental impact? To find out, the next step for Green Home Games is to distribute the games to more people and complete longitudinal studies. Horn also seeks to place these games in a more publicly visible place, like app stores.

Tangible tools

Learning scientists take many different approaches to the design of learning technology, and the approach that Horn advocates is tangible interaction. “Tangible interaction is about bringing back the richness of the physical world to digital tools,” he explains. “There’s a sensory richness to tools … that in the digital world has been replaced by the clicks of a mouse or controller. That has robbed us of the richness of the human motor system to do work.” His Tangible Interaction Design and Learning research lab at Northwestern develops innovative museum exhibits, games and other learning experiences using interactive technology.

Horn’s interest in creating energy games grew out of his concern for environmental issues. What first sparked his determination to help people save energy? It may have been his first experience trying to set a programmable thermostat. The thermostat’s multi-folded instruction packet stymied even a computer engineer like Horn. “I became interested in making that situation better,” he says.

For now, environmental issues offer fertile ground for Horn’s game-changing efforts, but in the future he intends to delve into other areas where games can have social impact. Social justice issues may be next on the agenda. Whatever the subject, the result may stir attitudes because of the inherent nature of games, he says.

“Games are cultural artifacts that not only reflect the values of the people who create them, but also subtly reinforce or challenge the values of people who play them,” Horn wrote in a recent journal article. “This dynamic interplay between designers and players is an important part of what makes games so appealing as a means to address social issues such as environmental sustainability, civic engagement, equity and public health.”