The Jubilee Project: Social Change Gamification of Urban Sustainability Initiatives Via a Well Being Lens

By Robert Barton

Over the past year, I have been learning and practicing community organizing and science communication in order to develop some fresh approaches to sustainability communication. Issues like climate change or renewable energy can elicit knee-jerk reactions from individuals and policy makers in today’s social and political climate. For my project, my goal was to develop a discussion tool that would facilitate an authentic engagement with these issues using a happiness framing.

With today’s myriad of media that bombard people on a daily basis, we are often over stimulated with information and content, and selective listening can serve to further distance us from people with differing perspectives on the world. Indeed, there are already many books, movies, and papers about sustainability and happiness out there for the people who are looking for them. But what about people who haven’t discovered sustainability, yet still feel the effects of these systems?

With this project, I was interested in creating new forms of engagement and expression that would inspire discussion and provoke thought in people around urban sustainability issues. I considered writing a series of short stories as well as curating a “well city” arts exhibition. Yet, I wanted an educational tool that allowed people to participate and skill build as well. And, it needed to be fun. After all, as Seattle community organizer Jim Diers says, “Why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

So, I channeled my knowledge of games and gamification into the design of a game around urban happiness titled Jubilee. Much like sustainability project teams, the game is designed for 3-5 players, each of whom takes on a different role in the fictional city setting. While it functions as entertainment on the surface, players also practice critical sustainability skills during play like considering tradeoffs, group decision making, managing uncertainty, and commons management.

In order to create this tool, I distilled the many pages of research I have done about urban sustainability, well being, and concepts of “the good life” (Buen Vivir for those in South America) into a collection of Action cards and gameplay dynamics that enable the players to take a selection of actions in order to improve the city. I hand drew 92 of these cards, and used colored pencils and stamps to put together some of the other aesthetic elements of the game. You can take a look at the finished game set in the picture below.

While I don’t have the space to detail the whole game concept and rules here, the basic idea is that players work together to complete initiatives, avert bad outcomes, negotiate deals, and persuade supporters to join them in their quest to make the city one of the happiest in the world. In order to do this, they must gather and trade resources, manage their character’s health and social influence, collectively work to boost the city’s community health meters, and finally accumulate happiness points.

After finishing with the game design and prototype building a few weeks ago, I have been playtesting it with various groups of people. This has allowed me to iron out the rules, balance the game a little better, and solicit suggestions or other reactions about the game. Most of the response has been encouraging and insightful, and I’m excited to continue to carry the game with me to reach new audiences.

My favorite part of the game is the discussions about happiness that ensue during and after the gaming session. While players are usually focused on their next move, they also begin to remark on the Action Cards or the game set up in a way that opens up the door to a discussion about what makes for a happy life and a habitat for happiness in the city. This is great because it gives me (as a player) the chance to talk about sustainability without running the overused gauntlet of environmental stereotypes about tree hugging and polar bears.

As an educational and outreach tool, Jubilee has the potential to motivate many people to act to strengthen and enhance their local communities and municipalities. Each of the Action Cards provide real initiatives that people can generate to do this. Also, while the game centers on a generic city in the “developed” world, it could definitely be adapted to play in a larger city like Mumbai or a smaller “underdeveloped” one in the Global South. I imagine its reach going into classrooms, workplaces, policy boardrooms, and community centers as people vision, discuss, plan, and work for happier, more sustainable futures.

Want to play? Have a suggestion? Feel free to contact me at <>. While I currently have only made one prototype set, my plan is to continue to build and expand this tool for a variety of audiences.


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