University of Florida

University of Florida

Gamification and Collaboration: Helping a Community Conserve Water

University of Florida is one of the 2015-16 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 11 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


  • Yu Hao Lee, Assistant Professor, Telecommunication, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @leeyuhao33
  • Matt Sheehan, Director, Innovation News Center, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @mattsheehan
  • Ann Christiano, Frank Karel Endowed Chair in Public Interest Communications, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @aechristiano
  • Cynthia Barnett, Hearst Visiting Professional, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @cynthiabarnett
  • Pierce Jones, Professor and Director, Program for Resource Efficient Communities, University of Florida
  • Randy Wright, Executive Director, Division of Media Properties, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @randallcwright
  • Robert Wells, doctoral student, UF College of Journalism and Communications, @rhwells79

Describe your project as a tweet

.@UFJSchool to test impact of gaming & collaboration between Journalism and PR students to inform & motivate community to reduce water use.

What are you going to test?

Our project will test the impact of gamification on community engagement and inter-disciplinary collaboration to inform and motivate the community to reduce water use.

First, we will test journalistic use of collaborative gaming approaches as a way to better engage the community in addressing local issues. This will include reporting and multimedia content development along with scenario development to drive behavior and solutions.

Second, as the fields of journalism and public interest communications increasingly intersect, we will assess how students can collaborate to develop more compelling storytelling approaches and engage the community in important, but contentious, topics.

How will the experiment be conducted?

The focus of this project is understanding water availability and motivating conservation behavior. This experiment will use gamification to facilitate collaboration between journalism and public interest communications students and to engage local community members. The team will design alternate reality game scenarios which challenge local community members to participate in investigating the source of their water, discuss the problem of overuse and come up with practical solutions. Alternate reality games are collaborative experiences designed to engage large and diverse populations. The organic communities work together to solve clues, gather pieces of information, contribute diverse expertise and come up with creative solutions to real issues.

In addition, journalism and public interest communications students, using multimedia and social media platforms, will work alongside local communities to exchange ideas and share their progress through visualization tools. Visualization will help people “see” and understand how water use is interconnected and motivate them to take action to reduce excessive water use. This process will bring together game design, public advocacy and environmental reporting to give students a hands-on opportunity to practice explanatory and solution journalism.

Students, through research and investigation, will develop insights and background material for scenario development. Data journalists will use real-world water usage data to assess the impact of the test. Students will then translate those findings, along with outcomes from the games, to report live throughout the project on the environmental impact of excessive residential water use and provide recommendations to conserve water.

How will you know if it worked or not?

We will be surveying participating students before, during and after the test to gauge their perceptions about collaborating with other disciplines. We will also survey gaming participants and the community at large to assess changes in their perspectives about water usage. Using data from the local utility, we can measure actual water consumption from targeted communities to gauge whether or not the storytelling and gaming approaches had a meaningful effect impact on water consumption.

How is this project unique and innovative?

This is the first time game mechanics will be used for journalism experimentation. We believe that by incorporating local communities in the collective storytelling process, the resulting environmental stories will cover more diverse perspectives that are more relatable to local communities.

In addition, as newsrooms work to recapture audiences lost to social media, they are exploring new tools to engage their audiences. At the New York Times, this means hiring engagement managers to work with every news team. At NPR, it means launching “Generation Listen,” a strategy designed to identify platforms and programs that appeal to younger audiences. Making these kinds of partnerships successful requires collaboration between groups that have abundant preconceptions about each other. Collaboration is a critical skill in today’s newsrooms, and yet it’s not a skill that’s cultivated as part of journalism training.

This project will give journalism and public interest communications students an opportunity to build their collaborative skills and understand how each group’s unique skill works toward the greater goal.

An important element of this effort is working with public relations research students to identify neutral language to engage the community on the topic of reducing water use. Much of the language used to describe water conservation can be inflammatory to people of different political perspectives, which means that reporting that uses those terms can inflame audiences, rather than inspiring them to change their behavior. Once we identify neutral terms, we’ll incorporate them into our reporting.

What technology platforms will you use?

We will use existing technology such as Google Maps, Exhibit, Leaflet, or similar open-source software to conduct issue mapping and visualization. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram will be used to facilitate discussion and feedback between participants.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

The experiment could help our newsroom identify more engaging message strategies for news coverage, and expand what the newsroom learns from our colleagues in public interest communications. How can we better integrate community engagement in our stories? Can we make it a daily occurrence? Are their opportunities for public relations students to work side-by-side with news students as part of the ongoing evolution of solutions journalism? The divisions between the public relations and journalism fields are strong and deep – we want to test what the two learn from each other in the pursuit of strong storytelling.

Through this effort we’ll have the opportunity to use new research about cultural identity and environmental messaging to identify and test apolitical approaches to water use. Once we have these new, neutral tools for talking about controversial topics, we would employ on relevant news and public interest courses and projects going forward.

What could go wrong?

The most significant challenge is community involvement. News coverage, content development and game creation, while complicated, do not pose significant challenges. What we have no control over is the level of community interest and participation on a topic many have previously decided to ignore.

We will have to aggressively reach out to the community and build awareness for the project and encourage formation of teams and to be more conscious of their water usage. The involvement of public interest communication students will help with messaging to better engage community members.