Engineering Fun

We like to have fun at parties, or playing games, or making music. But when was the last time you had fun taking the stairs instead of the escalator, or throwing out recyclables? A sense of satisfaction, maybe. Or of doing the right thing. But—fun?

We've known for a while that fun can be harnessed in socially useful ways. A wonderful example is the Roundabout, which harnesses the energy of children playing on a roundabout to pump water.

A recent example from Copenhagen is a bicycle-powered Christmas tree—this panorama provides an evocative sense of the fun to be had.

It's an intangible, but the folks at The Fun Theory believe they've found a way to encourage socially-minded behavior. In brief: find a task that would make a difference if significantly more people did it, then find a way to make it enjoyable. The theory is that adding an element of fun will change people's behaviour. And they've been conducting experiments to prove it. In the following example, 66% more people chose to use the stairs when those stairs had been turned into a piano keyboard.

The Fun Theory folks also invited the general public to submit their own examples. A jury will decide on the best entry, but meanwhile (until January 15th), the public can vote on their favourite ideas and implementations. Here are some engaging ones:

  • Fighting Germs with Fun - "when the sound effects were used, seven times as many students used the sanitizer to clean their hands"
  • Slide It Doormat - door that only opens when people slide their foot over the doormat
  • The Musical Sink - rewards people with music when they wash their hands

Are there certain kinds of fun that wear off, and others that are continuously motivating? Can you think of any green activities that might benefit from a 'fun' treatment? Are there ways that this can scale up to mass behaviours with a larger impact? Your thoughts are welcome.


If you look back about fifty years, Buckimnster Fuller was engineering a "World Game" for students and world leaders. Players could come together over global resource inventories, strategies for efficient ecological practices or ways to end global conflicts. He then used much of those best laid plans in his book "Critical Path" which summarizes some of his life's largest working theories (such as a worldwide electrical grid powered by renewable resources).

I think that today Bucky would suggest a web-based humanitarian group who constantly improved and played this "World Game", according to Critical Path, together.

Perpetual play of a World Game... Beats the heck out of a War Game for once.

Posted by: Luke S on January 2, 2010 11:21 AM

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