Green Building Game Misses the Point

July 1, 2008

Design Your Dream Home screen image I recently came across an online game called “Design Your Dream Home” on the Green Is Universal website. I was shocked by what I found and how bad the game really was. I prefer to focus on the positive aspects of green building, but this strikes me as so misguided that I could not let it pass unremarked.

Whoever designed this game has no understanding of real green building in any meaningful sense. Instead of providing any insight or education about green building, the game reduces design of a green house to nothing more than a couple of mouse clicks. “Choose the climate construction materials and energy sources and see how green you can be.” The oversimplification this presents is a huge disservice to visitors to the site who play the game.

To start, there are six climate regions to choose from, and then you can choose one of six types of construction materials (though it’s interesting to learn that in addition to wood and brick, ‘apartment’ is also a construction material – who knew?) This allows a matrix of 36 combinations, to which you can add options from the two remaining categories. (See how easy architecture is? You only have to deal with four things!)

Energy and Efficiency Options are the last variables. Unlike your first choices, you can pick more than one item in each of these categories. Then you can click on ‘Check Efficiency’ and see what your home’s efficiency rating is (higher is supposedly better).

I found it mind boggling that, if you don’t like your efficiency score in this game, you can just choose another climate. Evidently (in this game’s rules, at least), the best solution for getting efficient homes is for everyone to move to warm, temperate climates. And while there is a national demographic trend in that direction, that does not make it a reasonable or sustainable option. Certainly a house in Louisiana is going to need less energy for heating than does one in Wisconsin. But the over-emphasis on choosing a moderate climate as a solution, rather than finding the best solution for each region, makes the game rather pointless.

Even more egregious is the fact that adding more and more stuff (which increases cost) is a positive strategy in the game. This is where I have my most serious reservations about “Design Your Dream Home”. The message seems to be a consumerist fantasy where you just buy more stuff and your efficiency improves. Tacking on a third or fourth energy system increases your efficiency score in the game. That’s not how it works in the real world, and it promotes a wrong-headed, “buy our way out of our problems” mentality that completely misses the point in green building.

I am also appalled that the game represents solar power being more efficient than geothermal (and they really mean ground-source heat pumps), but geothermal is represented as being three times as expensive. The scale of various elements is also way out of line (choosing recycling costs $1000 of your $100,000 budget, as does choosing energy efficient lighting).

Sure, I realize it’s only a game. But by presenting itself as it does, with informational and educational content, they certainly ought to get a few more things right. Good online games that inform as you play them do exist; see the
Climate Challenge Game for a good example of this. Personally, I would like to see some more discussion in the game about how the choices work together or not, to make it more meaningful and informative. I’d also like to re-balance the game to bring some options more into line with reality. After all, with the instructions to “Mix and match components and build the most efficient home possible” the answer ought to be something better than: “move to San Diego.” Locally appropriate should mean something.

Link (if you want see it yourself): Design Your Dream Home

or, instead, read about Green Homes for Regular People