Sustainability is a big umbrella term with lots of jargon and tricky concepts underneath it. There’s no denying that to get people to truly embrace and embed sustainability into their lives with ease, the topic needs to be more engaging. Bold Donut Games is one example of a company working towards not only making sustainability mainstream but fun.
Nathan Cruz Coulson, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder explains: “During the COVID lockdowns, Kate was working on a side project to create a competitor to Scrabble, and I was looking to transition my career into the climate technology sector – but I wasn’t sure where to start. The idea for Bold Donut came when I was talking to a friend who worked for a big UK energy company; they were working on gamifying consumer engagement to encourage people to use less energy during peak hours.”
He adds: “An additional spark occurred when Kate and Nathan spoke about how fun, yet addictive, casual mobile games like Candy Crush or Lily’s Garden were and what if that engagement power could be used for something more climate positive.”
Nathan was inspired to create a prototype “match 3” game for collecting user feedback, and they both applied to New Frontiers with the idea of creating direct-to-consumer games. This initial idea has transformed significantly to a B2B ‘games-as-a-service’ business model that puts the engagement power of digital games in the hands of sustainability managers who need to educate their audience on practical sustainability knowledge, such as waste segregation or sustainable energy and report on their impact.
When asked how they coined the name ‘Bold Donut’, Nathan says: “We were playing around with several names. We are fans of Kate Raeworth’s “Doughnut Economics”. We wanted to have a memorable, even cheeky name. So one day, we came up with it while on a bus.”
Speaking on the ability of games to encourage sustainability adoption, Nathan explains there is a long list of reasons games are a great medium for engagement, education, and entertainment of any sort. He shares you only have to look to the success of commercial games to witness how effectively they can grab and hold attention.
According to Nathan, 2.6 billion people play mobile games for an average of 17 minutes daily. He adds: “Beyond this general engagement power of games, we see 3 main aspects of digital games that make them a particularly powerful medium for engaging and mobilising large audiences around big challenges like climate change.”
These include agency, showing not telling, and solving coordination problems. Nathan shares: “Unlike watching a TV advert, seeing a poster or watching a TikTok video, games give players agency to do something in a game world. In the context of eco-anxiety and apocalyptic messaging about climate change, people are often frozen in inaction.”
He explains: “By emphasising action within a game world that is fun, educational, and positive, we aim to empower players to act. First virtually, and then in the real world.”
Topics related to climate change and sustainability, such as renewable energy, circular manufacturing, and economics, can also be complex and overwhelming even for those who are experts in these fields. Nathan says that games offer us the opportunity to create and interact with complex systems like a city, spaceship, or new civilisations in a fun, intuitive, and experimental way.
In other words, instead of telling people how a community energy system works, a game can show them and challenge them to make it work better. Games can also tackle coordination problems; we know individual actions are important, but they matter most when they are coordinated with others and ideally create and strengthen social and community bonds in the process.
Nathan explains: “By demonstrating how our energy use can be coordinated to reduce community emissions or how supper clubs and community gardens can increase both individual nutrition and community cohesion, you are showing how individual action can be part of systemic change.”
He continues: “This is exactly what we aim to do through mechanics like collective goals and shared environments within our games. Games emphasise the agency we have to achieve individual and collective goals. They show us rather than tell us what a better system could look like, and finally, they enable us to practice solving coordination problems like the many ones we face as we tackle the climate crisis.”
Existing games that inspired the Bold Donut Games include Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, Lily’s Garden, Terra Nil, and Candy Crush. Their journey thus far has been one of constant learning because their idea is a new solution to an old problem, and with this, there is a big need to educate the market on why they should choose a ‘fun’ medium to deal with such a ‘serious’ topic.
Currently, the Bold Donut team have one game released (waste segregation and circular economy) and one in development (sustainable energy). The waste game has three main parts – drag and drop quizzes to test knowledge on “what goes in what bin” as well as casual puzzles where players race against the clock to collect and correctly process different waste items. This game also features custom stories that introduce players to the context, characters, and fun facts. The casual puzzles make the repetition of learning about waste both fun and interactive, so users barely realise they are learning.
The quizzes offer baseline information on what players know and what they learn after playing the puzzles, which is useful to see their progress and report their impact. Other features include leaderboards, collective goals, customisable avatars, and badges. They will be launching an Early Access Programme for their due-to-launch sustainable energy game. This programme will involve workshops and playtesting sessions in the first year, and in the second year, those involved will have a full licence to use the game within their organisation.
Nathan discusses some of the challenges in their journey: “We wanted to validate our solution with paid customers before we started raising investment, so we have bootstrapped thus far. Bootstrapping comes with its challenges and insecurities, but it has put us in a good position to use future capital wisely, something that’s particularly important in this current environment.”
The Bold Donut team received incredible support and assistance from the New Frontiers Phase 2 programme. Nathan shares that early on in their journey, the New Frontiers team believed in them so much that they gave them 6 months of invaluable support and €15K in grant funding.
Nathan talks about Bold Donut’s big break: “We got a big break with the Sustainability team at Trinity; they were willing to try out our game in May 2023 – from there, they became our first customer. Part of any startup journey is luck and the belief that people have in you and your idea early on. Now we’re gaining steam with several more customers, and we’ve started raising pre-seed funding.”
In May 2023, Bold Donut piloted a waste management game with Trinity College Dublin. Their MVP consisted of a high-quality white-label digital game, and in just one week, they demonstrated a broad appeal (300+ players), high levels of engagement, and measurable learning outcomes (a 15%-25% increase in knowledge during gameplay).
Nathan shares: “We also have “Campaigns”. Something that will be familiar to players of casual games, we can release limited versions of our games for seasonal events like Halloween and Christmas – complete with seasonally relevant waste items but also with atmospheric changes like spooky music or Christmas-themed stories. Currently, our games and campaigns are around 20-40 levels and feature dozens of waste items.”
When asked what drives him to do this work, Nathan says: “I’m motivated by the enormous challenges we face due to climate change and our wasteful economic system – If my efforts can make a positive impact to mitigate those challenges in some small (and fun) way then I’ll be happy with that.”
Co-founder Kate gives her thoughts: “I used to be frozen in inaction when it came to climate action, partly because so much of the messaging was very negative. The longer we do this, the more organisations we talk to, and the more I am motivated by the opportunities there are for improvement when it comes to daily climate action and behaviours if we can just make it relatable, easy and fun.