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Online Footprint -A Serious Game for Reducing Digital Carbon Emission

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Life is getting digital more than ever as technology improves. While the Internet is responsible for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is underestimated as a pollutant. Since public awareness is one of the most important preservation methods, it can contribute to protecting the environment from carbon emissions by raising people's understanding. In this regard, serious games, as a type of gamification transmitting educational content besides entertainment, immerse the player in enjoyment while teaching them a specific topic or enhancing their skills in a field. This study proposes a serious game, taking the digital unseen carbon footprint and its effects on the landscape into the topic. The game considers SDG goals provided by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In this regard, the research uses SDGs 4 and 7 by providing quality education for all and access to sustainable energy by changing people's everyday habits.
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SIGraDi 2022. Critical Appropriations | Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas.
Online Footprint - A Serious Game for Reducing
Digital Carbon Emission
Sepehr Vaez Afshar1, Gülşen Aytaç2, Sarvin Eshaghi1, Sana Vaez Afshar3
1 Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
sepehr.afshar@ttu.edu; sarvin.eshaghi@ttu.edu
2 Istanbul Technical University, Istanbul, Turkey
gulergu@gmail.com
3 Urmia University, Urmia, Iran
sanavafshar@gmail.com
Abstract. Life is getting digital more than ever as technology improves. While the
Internet is responsible for two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is
underestimated as a pollutant. Since public awareness is one of the most important
preservation methods, it can contribute to protecting the environment from carbon
emissions by raising people's understanding. In this regard, serious games, as a type of
gamification transmitting educational content besides entertainment, immerse the player
in enjoyment while teaching them a specific topic or enhancing their skills in a field. This
study proposes a serious game, taking the digital unseen carbon footprint and its effects
on the landscape into the topic. The game considers SDG goals provided by the United
Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In this regard, the research uses
SDGs 4 and 7 by providing quality education for all and access to sustainable energy by
changing people's everyday habits.
Keywords: Online learning, Internet footprint, Climate change, Serious games, SDGs.
1 Introduction
Carbon footprint, which refers to the total amount of greenhouse gasses
emitted directly and indirectly by an organization, person, product, or event
(Gombiner, 2011), is one of the most undesirable and inevitable issues of the
current era human beings are dealing with. The amount of the released carbon
into the air has a solid connection with the people's living environment quality.
Hence, the amount of emitted greenhouse gasses is being monitored to
guarantee a safe habitat for the current and upcoming generations
(Pătărlăgeanu et al., 2020). Since the carbon footprint includes gasses other
than only carbon dioxide, the amount of global warming each activity causes is
calculated by measuring its effect considering the equivalent amount of all
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emitted gasses as carbon (Gombiner, 2011). This ecological footprint has a
prominent role in climate change which the world is tackling, and urgent
solutions are required to hinder the planet from being uninhabitable (Matthews
et al., 2008). However, prior to looking for methods of dealing with it, it is
important to be aware of its minor causes, as well as the more obvious ones.
Following the emergence of the Internet, it conversed from being a medium
for only a minority of society to an everyday factor in the whole of humanity's
life. Hence, it raised plenty of questions concerning the impact it puts on social
interactions and communities and the accessibility of the resources. This novel
technological invention transformed the planet by bringing new enlightenment.
Its pervasive use not only functions on its own but also penetrates the everyday
activities and functions of the people. For instance, in shopping, the Internet is
being used in both innovative and familiar ways (Haythornthwaite and Wellman,
2002). While the capabilities of this technology captivated people, and they
assumed that the Internet would be a cure for the planet's climate change
problem by reducing the greenhouse gas amount emitted by plenty of activities,
they underestimated the carbon footprint of the Internet itself. According to
Gombiner (2011), global Information Technology (IT) emits approximately two
to four percent of the current greenhouse gasses. This amount is generated in
two ways, first, the manufacture and shipment of the required hardware, such
as servers, personal devices, etc., and second, the energy needed for power
and cooling these systems.
According to Hurst (2017), if the Internet were a country, it could be ranked
as the 5th most pollutant compared to the various countries' contamination
rates. The Google search engine can serve as a great example to understand
energy usage and the Internet's carbon footprint. According to Pandia's 2007
news, this corporation has more than one million worldwide servers processing
about one billion search queries daily. In 2009, Kuhn, in a CNN news report,
revealed Google's servers as 100,000 per quarter. In addition to these servers'
production and distribution of greenhouse gas outputs, each user's Google
search has an additional emission. To speed up the search results, Google
uses more servers than needed, consuming plenty of unnecessary energy. Due
to Alex Wissner-Gross, a physicist from Harvard, each Google search emits
seven grams of carbon dioxide, equaling boiling a teapot or driving a car for 52
feet. Considering the different statistics by various organizations, even if this
amount is an average of one gram, with one billion daily searches, the related
CO2 amount reaches one billion grams, similar to driving 2,375,000 miles with
a car.
Additionally, Alex Wissner-Gross has an estimation regarding watching
pictures or videos on web pages. According to him, each second viewing media
on the Internet produces 0.2 grams of CO2. With the approximately two billion
daily videos on YouTube, considering a ten-second watch for each, four billion
grams of carbon dioxide is emitted each day by only watching videos
(Gombiner, 2011). Another surprising and underestimated rate is related to
emails. Depending on being spam, regular, or containing a photo attachment,
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emails can vary in carbon footprint amount. They may respectively produce an
approximate amount of 0.3, 4, and 50 grams of carbon dioxide. Considering a
business user, one person could emit 135kg of CO2 yearly by only sending
emails. If the adult users of the UK only stop sending one 'thank you' email,
they can reduce 16,433 tonnes of carbon emission yearly (Griffiths, 2020).
Considering the effect of the Internet on different sectors' carbon footprint,
while the reduction of business travel will reduce the related emitted gasses
(Nairn, 2007), a significant increase will be needed in the Internet's capacity to
replace face-to-face meetings with desirable quality video conferences.
Consequently, the increased Internet capacity will increase energy
consumption and, subsequently, carbon footprint (Baliga et al., 2007). As Owen
(2010) quotes Saul Griffith, a green technology innovator, the Internet's carbon
footprint may exceed air travel, a major pollutant in this regard, by almost two
times. Generally, while this replacement would contribute to carbon emission
reduction, the Internet's footprint should also be considered for a more precise
calculation (Baliga et al., 2009). The Data Centers supporting the cloud
computing architecture and the users' requests are the other major digital
causes of greenhouse gasses with their huge energy consumption (Thakur and
Chaurasia, 2016). Considering the US, for instance, since it burns coal, a brown
energy source, as the main fuel for electricity production, the issue has gained
more importance (Le et al., 2010).
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) affected even the
movie sector. The Internet provided new means for producers and users in
terms of platforms for watching and distribution methods such as webcasting,
streaming, and downloading specific content. While the penetration of the
Internet to the movie industry decreased the distribution and production costs,
the energy efficiency of the increased opportunity for downloading the media
contents should be considered, including various factors like manufacturing
laptops and other Internet-related materials (Hochschorner et al., 2015).
However, regarding the knowledge industry, Chowdhury (2010) states that
even if people do not transfer digital content via the Internet, the related power
is being consumed in any case. Hence, the small portion of knowledge-related
transactions in the Internet carbon footprint is neglectable compared to the
environmental and financial costs of physical knowledge distribution.
However, according to UNESCO (2021), the current global challenges,
including climate change affected by carbon footprint, could be an education
topic for learners of all ages. Such training will prepare the future generation to
take vise solutions and actions regarding the current and upcoming
environmental issues. This approach, called Education for Sustainable
Development (ESD), is a subtopic of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.
Hence, increasing public awareness about reducing carbon footprints and
sustainable development can also lead to the desired outcome in the long term
in addition to the physical methods dealing with the carbon footprint. For this
purpose, serious games serving educational content besides entertainment are
a remarkable sample of educational medium for the young generations
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regarding a more sustainable future (Alvarez and Djaouti, 2011). Currently,
serious games encompass a broad spectrum of topics, including health
(Clochesy et al., 2015), military (DeFalco et al., 2018), ecology (Ameerbakhsh
et al., 2019), heritage (Vaez Afshar et al., 2021), language learning (Johnson,
2007) and many other fields for both youngsters and higher education students.
This research proposes a serious game to introduce the hidden carbon
emission of the Internet and the related activities to the players and make them
aware of their daily activities' effect on the sustainability of the surrounding
environment. The proposed game teaches the users the amount of carbon
emission for various online activities such as broadcasting, emailing, Googling,
etc. The players are informed and awarded based on the carbon amount they
reduced or increased in a metaphoric ratio according to their selections during
the assigned tasks. They also observe its effect on the jungle trees they are
responsible for. To develop the Online Footprint game, the researchers
reviewed the currently available serious games and the related studies in
sustainability and carbon emission.
2 Literature Review
Plenty of researchers developed and investigated the role of serious games
in sustainability and carbon footprint, considering the climate change issue. For
instance, Dib and Adamo-Villani (2014) developed and evaluated the effect of
a serious game in sustainable building development education for the
undergraduate students enrolled in various related courses to cover the
corresponding gap in the curriculum of the relevant faculties due to the
importance of the topic in the current era. The research compared procedural
and declarative knowledge gained by students while playing the game versus
traditional educational methods. SimGreen is a serious game focusing on the
companies' sustainability regarding reducing their environmental effects. Zhang
and Zwolinski (2015) proposed a serious game engaging the players to find
various methods to tackle environmental issues. In another study, Xu et al.
(2014) generated a serious game framework named Makahiki for sustainability
with built-in content, gaming elements, and mechanics playable on various
devices. The framework had already been used to develop some games via
different organizations. Whittaker et al. (2021) focused their study on the effect
of rewards and points on the game's ultimate consequence regarding
sustainability outcomes. Additionally, while Knol and De Vries (2011) declare
the unpopularity of serious games among students, they claim the positive
effects of the EnterCities game on the players' energy-related life activities.
Regarding carbon footprint reduction, Archana et al. (2016) developed a
game using Bloom's Taxonomy for the course design in their research. In the
game, the player gets knowledge and directly experiences the issue by
replacing objects in an office area to reduce carbon emissions. In the study by
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Yang (2009), a gamified learning tool was proposed to educate non-experts
about designing and deciding on energy-related issues in their homes. It is a
sample of low-budget computation for public awareness.
Despite all the existing research on sustainability and carbon footprint in
various fields, the lack of serious games and relevant studies specifically
regarding Internet-related carbon footprint in the literature inclined the
researchers toward developing the Online Footprint serious game.
3 Methodology and Game Design
The methodology of the game follows a broad literature review mentioned
previously. After the background phase of the study, among the various age
ranges, the study chose middle school students aged 11 to 13 as its target
audience. Afterward, the possible functionalities that the Internet could have for
this age range were listed. Later, to fulfill the game's primary purpose, at the
level design stage, using XMind Software, the researchers created a
comprehensive mind map for conveying all the intended information to a user
engagingly. As a result of this process, the game design part proceeded with
the game development phase, which will be discussed more in the paper.
However, the game is still in its alpha phase due to time constraints, and the
first stage has only been developed (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Methodology.
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The online Footprint game assigns the player a Jungle to take care of at the
beginning of each level. The player also got informed of some important
information about that jungle. Subsequently, the game asks some duties or
questions to the player, and in each of them, the player should make the best
decision to produce as little carbon as possible. While doing the required
activities, besides being aware of the emitted carbon dioxide amount, the player
will also observe its effect on the trees he/she is responsible for (Fig. 2).
At the end of the level, the game demonstrates the same jungle to the player
with the number of trees successfully preserved. Players understand the carbon
footprint they leave behind by their daily activities during the game, which has
penetrated their lives and left them unaware of their impact on the environment.
Since the Internet has an important role in the lifestyle of everyone at any age
nowadays, this game can target a wide spectrum of various ages. The game
serves the SDG 7 goal provided by the department of economics and social
affairs of the United Nations by contributing to affordable, reliable, sustainable,
and modern energy access for all by changing people's everyday habits
regarding their Internet-related carbon footprint.
Figure 2. Game's interactive selection sample.
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4 Game Development
The game's main goal is to transmit the mentioned data to the player and
raise the user's awareness of their daily Internet-related activities. Hence, the
paper seeks an easy-to-use platform fitting its aim to develop the game. Twine
platform (Twine, 2021) is a free and open-source tool with almost no need for
coding, generating interactive non-linear text-based games. The tool can be
used online as a web application and installed easily on the desktop. The
platform enables game development for non-experts in the game industry. It
opens up the opportunity of providing any information in the form of an
appealing digital game. Outcomes of the platform are in the form of HTML web
pages, available for a mass user, with no need for a high technology device.
The game development occurs in a branching system serving the game in a
decision-making nature. This non-linearity and possibility of the various endings
attract the player to play the game repetitively. By integrating the developed
game with Twine macros, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it is able to publish a
perfectly enhanced and complicated game (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. The development process of the game on the Twine platform.
5 Conclusion
To conclude, carbon footprint and global climate change are the planet's
vital issues humans are tackling. However, while people are aware of many
factors leading to carbon emission, plenty of everyday activities that seem
innocent are responsible for this world's trouble. The Internet, which with its
emergence facilitates peoples' lives and reduces the carbon emission of several
activities, at the same time is responsible for a considerable amount of
greenhouse gas production. Public awareness is one of the best and first
solutions to facing such a phenomenon. To do so, an interactive and engaging
method, immersing a wide range of ages, seems a wise decision. Hence,
serious games conveying educational content besides entertainment can raise
people's knowledge of the issue. Therefore, this paper proposes the
development of a serious game regarding the Internet's unseen carbon
footprint. The players would be aware of their daily online activities' carbon
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emissions and their effect on the green infrastructure of the world. A game like
Online Footprint may help people to change their lifestyle habits. In a pervasive
and worldwide topic like the Internet, pretty small changes by each individual
can make enormous changes in the world's carbon emissions.
As previously mentioned, the game is in the alpha stage due to time
constraints. Hence, as a further study, the game has the potential to be
expanded and published for use in schools to raise students' awareness of the
issue as the game's first phase. At this level, the game can be evaluated while
being used in the curriculum of a class. The test can compare the results of
serious game education with conventional educational methods. Afterward, it
can be developed for older age ranges, addressing the functionalities of the
Internet in business, or higher education, for instance. In that case, the game
can be a motivational application for the employees to teach them the required
alerting information and directly influence their daily habits while doing their job-
related tasks and duties by awarding them among co-workers.
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