Veronica Spencer
Engineer, Designer, and Maker


Plog & Play: Gamifying Environmental Causes

I hate running. I have always hated running. I don't experience "runner's high". I sweat miserably in the overwhelming Georgia heat, and I consider anyone proselytizing the "glorious experience of running" to me as a personal offense. 

So, why do I hate running? It's not the pain and often harmful short-term effects on my body. If that had been the issue, there's no way that I could have toughed out over 8 years of higher education. Nor does my hatred stem from the shame I feel being out of shape - which I am. The reason that I can't stand running is because I GET BORED. There's nothing that I find interesting enough about running that can distract me from the general discomfort of moving far faster than I normally do. Which is why I find myself absolutely shocked that - as of today - I am strongly considering starting to run again. I think that I have figured out a way to make running fun - and it all has to do with a new word that I learned called "plogging".

What is Plogging?

Plogging - a combination of the words jogging and "plocka upp", meaning pick up in Swedish - is the act of jogging while carrying a small bag and stopping to pick up litter when you see it. It started in Sweden, and it is slowly becoming a more global movement among people who like to run. And why wouldn't it?

You're saving the environment! You're running! You're bending over to pick things up! And you aren't paying for the privilege! (I'm looking at you, gyms.) Initial data from the fitness app Lifesum that indicates that plogging burns more calories than regular jogging, and regular ploggers have been reporting increased core tone from all that bending over to pick up litter. (Source) Ploggers also talk about the enjoyment of seeking out or looking for garbage to pick up.

There's so much to love about this that it's easy to get excited when you think about all the good that you'll be doing! And then.... your disappointment when you remember that you'll be picking up and hauling potentially smelly garbage and recyclables throughout your run. But I think that the social righteousness of "plogging" combined with gamification techniques could make up for the downsides of this fitness activity.

Gamification & Exercise

Gamification has proven at least somewhat effective in getting kids (and adults) up and at 'em. Video games like Dance Dance Revolution, Just Dance, and the Wii Fit series have proven enough of an enticing exercise program that several US schools have imported them into their gym class activities. I remember being allowed to substitute a significant portion of playing DDR at home in exchange for missing another fitness activity, and how it seemed as if I was getting the better deal because I was having more fun playing video games.

That's all well and good for exercising while standing in one place - but what about exercise while running? Fortunately, since the advent of the smartphone, app developers have been looking at ways to get us having fun on the move. When I got my first ever iPhone (4S, for the record), I remember hearing about an "AR" game called "Zombies, Run!". Being super into post-apocalyptic literature and games, I downloaded it as soon as possible. Jogging along and hearing audio inputs deliver the story of your character was really, really exciting; it was the first time ever that I thought that I could get used to running. More recently, Pokemon Go and The Walk have swept through like wildfire, keeping people excited about moving. Gamification of exercise IS making it possible to motivate people through previously eschewed activities.

The biggest problem that I have right now is that it's limited entirely to interacting with a smartphone while you are on the run.

How Can We Gamify Running and Picking Up Garbage?

When there's a will, there's a way. I think that there's a huge opportunity for gamifying the plogging trend. I'm not saying I have all the answers, because I've literally be contemplating this for about an hour and a half, but I'd like to close off this quick thought-piece with a few different gaming scenarios:

1. Educational Game

Tired of your kids asking you how things are made? Have them run a mile (under adult supervision, of course)! Give them their specialized trash pick-up kit, which protects their hands AND registers what types of trash they're picking up. At the end of the run, they collect levels based on the types of trash they collected - via material. They're treated to some fun, educational content about where that material comes from, what it's used in, and how it gets broken down.

2. Litter-Based Power-Ups via Freemium Games Model

Whether it's Candy Crush, Game of War, or Fortnite, Freemium games are here to stay. For those of you who don't know, freemium games are those which are advertised as free-to-play, but offer paid power-ups that give you either an advantage against your opponents or lower the difficulty level of the game. Since we already incentivize people for recycling with cash, it seems like a small step to allowing collection points to reward players for litter and recycling by giving them in-game resources!

3. A Splatoon-Style Turf War

Splatoon is a cute Nintendo franchise where humanoid squids paint things in ink to accomplish their goals (which depend on what mode of the game you are playing). The multiplayer mode "Turf-Wars" is where opposing teams try to paint as much of the environment their color of ink as possible. What if, instead of ink marking territory, players in this plogging game gain "turf" by cleaning up litter that is in the area? Litter that is harder to pick up - or is more detrimental to the environment - could carry more weight than other pieces of litter.


Veronica Spencer