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Vermontivate Gamers Earn Points for the Planet 

click to enlarge Brattleboro students compete in Vermontivate in 2012
  • Brattleboro students compete in Vermontivate in 2012

If children ages 3 to 7 years old in a Brattleboro daycare can change the way they dry their hands for the sake of the environment, so can you. According to Vermontivate, it’s as simple as watching a brief video on how to shake your hands 10 to 12 times after washing, then use just one paper towel to dry off completely.

Vermontivate is a locally designed sustainability game that allows participants — individuals, classes, businesses and entire communities — to earn points by taking steps to improve and protect the environment. The game is “designed to activate the largest number of people possible, making the kind of large-scale changes we need to fight climate change,” explains cofounder Kathryn Blume. She’s a Charlotte-based environmental activist, actor and director who in recent years has merged her passion for all three into a provocative one-woman show called The Accidental Activist.

Blume and Nick Lange, an energy-efficiency consultant, first introduced Vermontivate in 2012 with little to no budget and one goal: making sustainability activities engaging and powerful.

“Within the first week of the first launch,” says Lange, “we knew we had succeeded by the number of people who signed up and the way they reacted to the game.”

Last year’s event had 200 registered players — including that Brattleboro daycare — and 13 towns. Most of them heard about the game through Vermontivate’s social-media channels, email blasts, their cosponsor Ben & Jerry’s or environmental organizations such as 350.org and the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network. Montpelier was the winning town in 2012.

This year, Vermontivate has gathered more than three dozen supporters, including the Vermont Energy Education Program, Front Porch Forum, Efficiency Vermont, GoVermont.com and the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. (Full disclosure: Seven Days is a media sponsor.) A public launch of the 2013 game will take place at Main Street Landing Train Station in Burlington this Saturday, April 20.

Playing Vermontivate is simple: On April 22, Earth Day, you sign up at vermontivate.com and set up your profile. (Beware: if you don’t upload a photo of yourself, the default image is of a cow’s behind.) If you’re the first person from your town to sign up, you will essentially be registering your town in the game. The more activities you and your neighbors engage in and share on your profiles, the more points you get. And the more participants your town has, the more points you’ll collectively accumulate. The town with the most points after five weeks, on June 21, wins a giant Ben & Jerry’s ice cream party for the whole community, as well as a trophy.

“Climate change is a giant, colossal bummer,” Blume says. “A lot of people know what’s going on, but they feel like it’s too big and overwhelming to solve, like there’s nothing they can do as an individual that will make a difference.”

That’s why she and Lange designed Vermontivate to make environmental activism doable, whether you sign up to make changes in your home — such as switching from chemical to natural cleaning products, or using durable grocery bags instead of plastic or paper — or get your entire community involved. More than a dozen new activity options are posted on the website weekly, each ranked easy, medium, hard or “wildcard” — which means something you can customize to your circumstances.

“Some of the activities are about contemplation rather than action,” Blume notes. “If you’ve never gardened before, we’re not gonna tell you to go plant an 8-by-10 garden in your backyard. Instead, the activity might be as simple as thinking about the barriers to gardening in your life, or taking one small step, like planting a small pot of basil on your back porch.”

Another activity involves taking a simple test to find out your home energy score; it asks how you use energy sources and recommends changes that will reduce usage. One 2012 participant, Gwen Hallsmith of Montpelier, says she earned points by walking and cycling to work, writing poems and songs related to the environment, and insulating her new home.

“It increased my consciousness about the little things that I could do,” says Sheryl Glubok of Shelburne, who also participated last year. She learned about “combining car trips so as not to waste gas,” and she reports that doing so “became an ongoing conversation with my children at home.”

A highlight for Glubok’s family was playing the game “kill-a-watt,” in which you earn a penny in a designated jar every time you catch someone else not turning off a light before leaving a room. “While we no longer do the penny part, my 5-year-old still likes to shout out ‘kill-a-watt’ as he turns off lights,” Glubok says.

This year, Vermontivate’s founders have created a fundraising campaign through Launcht, a crowdfunding platform designed by Middlebury graduates Spencer Taylor and Freeman White, to help their game reach more people. If the campaign is successful, Blume and Lange will be able to market Vermontivate more widely, hold live community events and further develop the website. In addition, they hope to support individual towns in fundraising for their own sustainability projects. “Every town will be able to set a goal, whether it’s for a community garden or solar paneling, etc., and the Vermontivate crowdfunding site will serve as an umbrella for their town-funding efforts,” Blume explains.

While she and Lange are both dedicated to environmental activism, they realize the crucial need to broach such a serious issue in entertaining ways. How do you make sustainability fun? The Vermontivate crew started by creating amusing animal mascots, including a goat named Madame Phoebe, the Muse of Possibility; and a rooster called Scratchy Dave, the Captain of Kudos. The “Vermontivacious” language on the website nearly bubbles over with enthusiasm, as if good cheer alone could help deter climate change.

Creating the game wasn’t as simple as it may appear. After soaking up the tenets of modern game design and positive psychology — that is, the study of strengths and virtues that enable individuals or groups to succeed — Lange spent three years putting together the details of Vermontivate. “We know community connection works on a small scale and is a great way for people to find happiness and well-being,” he says. “But how do you do that on a larger scale without losing that sense of personal understanding and relationships between people?”

Following the research of American game designer Jane McGonigal, Lange learned the equation for success: Ask someone to play a game, to learn actively and use their mind, in a way that leads to a productive good in the world.

“You can get a much more sustained impact and more meaningful result if your efforts to motivate people are intrinsic versus extrinsic,” explains Lange. “Using money as a reward, for example, reorients the thought process so it’s only about money, and people stop focusing on the true objective of the task.”

By contrast, an intrinsic motivator (such as awareness of doing a good thing for yourself, your community and the environment) sparks curiosity and fun, both of which are valuable in their own right. “Like playing a sport,” Lange says, “it’s voluntary, you enjoy the challenge and it gives you a sense of achievement.”

Despite all the research into what makes games fun, Lange says crafting them also involves a certain degree of artistic creativity. “You can’t just turn a crank and — poof! — you have fun.” But, he adds, “The psychology of giving makes people happier, and it’s rewarding.”

Lange and Blume hope Vermonters who engage in this combination of learning, taking action, connecting, supporting one another and earning rewards will succeed in taking better care of Mother Earth. They’re not naïve about the enormity of the threat that climate change poses. Still, they’re encouraged by what they’ve seen so far.

“At the end of last year’s game, we asked for participants’ feedback, and it was so much greater than I could’ve imagined,” says Lange. “The things they told us blew my mind. They told us we changed their lives — and we didn’t set out to do that — through the feelings of fulfillment and making progress on things they always knew they should do but hadn’t ever done. The players made Vermontivate what it is. They made it awesome … and they were sad when it ended.”

Vermontivate’s launch party is this Saturday, April 20, 1 to 4 p.m., at Main Street Landing Train Station in Burlington. Sign up to play the game beginning on Earth Day, Monday, April 22. For more info, visit vermontivate.com.

The original print version of this story was headlined "Scoring Sustainability: Vermontivate gamers earn points for the planet, and maybe to win some ice cream."

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