EcoRace: How a Board Game Can Influence Eco-Friendly Car Purchases

By Paul Choi and Miguel Garrido

For several decades, motor vehicles have been a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and pollution in the US. According to the EPA, in 2015 the transportation sector accounted for about 27 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions, second only to the electricity sector. Scientists have long emphasized the adverse effects of vehicle emissions, since GHG emissions cause global warming and drive climate change. Accordingly, U.S. public policy has in recent years aimed to increase the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles.

Yet the effects of vehicle emissions on human health remain significant. Air pollution poses a major risk to public health, and major studies have established a strong link between vehicle emissions and illnesses such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and lung cancer. However, consumer surveys indicate that most car buyers don’t consider these health effects when making purchasing decisions.

Moreover, fuel efficiency ranked 8th out of the top 10 factors that consumers consider when buying cars. This is troubling given that the fuel economy of a vehicle is a high-leverage point that can substantially reduce tailpipe emissions and thus improve public health.

EcoRace: A Board Game to Influence Car-Buying Decisions

We designed a board game called EcoRace to address the two primary problems outlined above. First, fuel efficiency is currently not one of the primary factors that consumers take into account when buying a new car. Second, although the effects of vehicle emissions on global warming have been well publicized, the impact on human health remains unclear or unknown to a lot of people.

EcoRace is a game played with two teams of two players each (it is cooperative among teammates yet competitive among teams). Each team has six cars (3 cars per player) of different fuel efficiencies: low, medium, and high. The objective of the game is to get all six cars to the finish line before the other team.

The rules of the game are simple: first, one player chooses a car to move and rolls the die. The player then moves the car on the board by the number displayed on the die multiplied by the MPG of the car (1 for low, 2 for medium, and 3 for high fuel efficiency). Then a player from the second team choose a car to move and rolls the die, and teams take turns in this way to move around the blocks.

To promote cooperation among teammates, players can choose to move two cars together if they land on the same square (this is an analogy to carpooling in the real world). Hence, strategic decisions about moving specific cars and waiting for your teammate to go move together occur throughout the game.

Additionally, the game includes 12 specific “Chance” blocks, which require the player that lands on them to pick up a Chance Card and read the instructions. The Chance Cards are data-driven and provide impactful statistics on the health effects of vehicles emissions. They reward fuel efficient cars and punish low fuel economy cars.

Audience and goals

The primary audience for this board game is young millennials who are considering buying a new car. We picked this demographic because their car-buying behavior can yield important insights about the future of vehicle emissions in this country. On one hand, studies indicate that the recent recession, coupled with the meltdown of the auto industry in 2009 and the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber, caused a stark decline in car ownership rates among millennials. Yet on the other hand, recent data indicate that millennials aren’t ditching car ownership altogether – they are simply delaying it.

However, surveys indicate that the health impacts of vehicle emissions, and fuel efficiency in general, are not key factors that millennials take into account when making purchasing decisions. Instead, they focus on features such as navigation system, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and mobile integration.

Our goals for EcoRace are thus threefold, each corresponding to a different time horizon. In the short run, we hope that millennials who play this game will understand the link between vehicle emissions and health problems. We believe this link is critical to making fuel efficiency a key buying factor, since that is the primary mechanism though which tailpipe emissions (and adverse health effects) can be reduced.

Our medium-term goal for EcoRace is to actually influence eco-friendly car-buying decisions among millennials. Specifically, we aim to make fuel efficiency a top factor (at least in the top 3 features) that they consider when buying a vehicle. In the long term, our hope is that millennials will choose to drive their fuel-efficient cars less and even ditch gasoline cars altogether, instead opting for electric cars or public transportation (our final thoughts below expand on this idea).

Data: Making heath information central to the game

As mentioned above, the health impact of vehicle emissions is the key theme of EcoRace, and we chose to make the health information central to the game by directly incorporating it into the Chance Cards, thus influencing the actual decisions that players make when moving their pieces along the board. An example of a chance card is:

Hazardous air pollutants (toxics) have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and other serious illnesses. The EPA estimates that the air toxics emitted from cars and trucks account for 50% of all cancers caused by air pollution. Your vehicle missions have contributed to increased cancer rates in your community.

If your fuel efficiency is low:  go back 3 spaces

If your fuel efficiency is medium:  go back 2 spaces

If your fuel efficiency is high, go back 1 space

Our chance cards cover a broad range of health impacts associated with vehicle emissions, from asthma to cardiovascular disease to diabetes to lung cancer, all summarized in a data-driven manner.

Testing the game

We tested EcoRace internally first, simulating several games using an early prototype to iterate and improve the pedagogical experience of the game. We then tested the game with four real players (from our target audience of millennials interested in buying a car in the near future). First, the players played a version of the game that was purely competitive (one vs. one), which did yield insights into the learning impact of the Chance Cards (understanding the link between vehicle emissions and human health, and incorporating fuel efficiency into purchasing criteria). However, the competitive aspect of the game did not enable us to promote cooperation, which more broadly speaks to the idea that working and coordinating with others (e.g. carpooling) can be a very effective means of reducing vehicle emissions.

As such, in our second round of testing, we incorporated a cooperative aspect to the game. Now two players would be assigned to each team, and each team would have to work together to strategize their moves along the way (e.g. which cars to move first, which squares to try to land on in order to carpool, etc.). We tested this second version of the game with four players and found that participants directly took into account the benefits of carpooling (e.g. moving two cars at the same time in this context) while still learning about the health impacts of different fuel efficiency levels among their cars. In the end, players viewed their least efficient cars as a nuisance and wished they could only drive cars with a high gas mileage.

To measure the success (or failure) of our game, we performed a simple pre-post interview to gauge the participants’ views regarding fuel efficiency. First, before they even knew what game they were going to play, we asked them to name the car they were most likely to buy (at least the general type) in the near future. Second, after they played one round of the game, we asked them the same question. According to our interviews, all of them said that fuel efficiency would likely be a key purchasing factor. Two of the interviewees even mentioned that learning about the adverse health impact of vehicle emissions would influence their future car-buying decisions, since they were thinking of having children soon.

Benefits of the game and concluding thoughts

EcoRace is a game designed to influence eco-friendly car buying by linking the adverse health effects of vehicle emissions to fuel efficiency. We believe it is effective because it promotes and rewards cooperation, raises awareness about fuel economy and its effects on public health, and provides data-driven mini-stories (in the form of Chance Cards) as part of a broader narrative (making it from home to the beach, which is the finish line in the game). It does so in a playful manner that still retains the key concepts we want millennials to understand about fuel efficiency.

As possible next steps, EcoRace can be improved in several ways. First, the link between the cars in the game to those in real life can be strengthened. Specifically, different car profiles can be developed that correspond to actual vehicle and truck types that consumers can buy, rather than abstract objects that simply have fuel efficiency levels of low, medium, and high. Second, more testing can be done to identify the target audience for this game. Millennials may be too broad a term, and the game may be more effective if we targeted a narrowly defined user (such as kids of a certain age range). Third, the game itself would have to be adopted by key customers in our target sector in order to actually make a difference. These are all possible directions that future enhancements can take with respect to EcoRace. However, we believe the version we’ve developed presents an effective and innovative way of influencing eco-friendly car-buying decisions.

Slide presentation located here

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