Lessons from the Garbage Game

    by Gail Robinson
    February 5, 2008

    In the almost three months since Gotham Gazette launched the Garbage Game about New York City’s refuse, we’ve learned interesting things – some about on-line games and some specific to this game and this topic. For a roundup of responses and reactions, presented on Gotham Gazette last month, click here.

    First, even people playing games on a relatively wonky site like ours want to have a game experience. That means they want to win or lose. Our game did not explicitly provide that, so people sought to provide it for themselves.

    Some wanted to compare their score – on money spent, landfill space filled and energy consumed – to what the city does now. For a variety of reasons, many having to do with how the NYC government breaks out information, that would have been hard to provide.


    Others decided the key to winning the game was keeping garbage out of the landfill. Interestingly we never really said this, but in this time of heightened environmental consciousness, people saw less garbage – and not, say, money saved – as analogous to victory. Some lamented how hard it was to “win”— no matter how hard you try not to, you still end up throwing things away.

    As part of the game experience, people like to keep score. Last minute snafus kept us from providing a running scorecard – of tons in the landfill, money spent, etc. It’s something to keep in mind and fix for future games.

    Our game involved people selecting from one of several choices both in sorting garbage in their own homes and then moving on to the policy level to determine what the city as a whole should do with its billions of tons of solid waste. And so some people did not like the choices, a situation that would probably occur in any game.


    One critic, dismissing composting of food waste (an option we did offer) chided us for not letting players opt to put their waste in a garbage grinder (a.k.a garbage disposal). We did not include that partly because this raises the thorny but tangential issue of managing the city’s sewer system. And the disposals have never gained much popularity here. Still, it’s a valid point.

    Then there were players who objected to our choices (cloth vs. disposable) for dealing with diapers. Why, some wondered, did we not include the simple option of not having children. “The most environmentally conscious thing I can do is not procreate,” wrote one player.

    Perhaps but that is a matter for another game.

    As to whether games such as ours are a useful tool, the responses indicate a clear yes. Many people wrote in blogs and elsewhere saying the Garbage Game had increased their understanding of the magnitude of solid waste confronting New York City and how difficult it is to do anything about it. “It seemed like no matter what choices you made, you’re still shipping tons of garbage around, but that’s real life, I guess,” wrote Fancy Green Pants.

    And the New York City sanitation department clearly felt our game helped New Yorkers feel their pain: They featured the game and linked to it on their site.

    Tagged: games play solid waste

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