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Sybo's Mathias Gredal Nørvig and Playmob's Jude Ower talk Gaming For Good

The Sybo CEO and Playmob founder's new book is an eco call-to-arms with contributions from Phil Spencer, Ilkka Paananen, John Hanke, Robert Antokol, Rob Small and more
Sybo's Mathias Gredal Nørvig and Playmob's Jude Ower talk Gaming For Good
  • Gaming For Good is a call to action for game makers, spelling out how they can engage with over three billion gamers to spread awareness and mobilize them in the fight against climate change
  • The book also features interviews and actionable insights from such industry leaders

Out now, Gaming For Good is a new book aiming to spread the word as to how games publishers and developers can not only set their own green agenda straight, but broadcast an inspirational and proactive environmental message to their increasingly receptive audiences.

Written by Jude Ower MBE, Founder & CEO of Playmob and Mathias Gredal Nørvig, CEO of SYBO, Gaming For Good is a call to action for game makers, spelling out how they can engage with over three billion gamers to spread awareness and mobilize them in the fight against climate change.

The book also features interviews and actionable insights from such industry leaders as Phil Spencer (EVP of Gaming at Microsoft), John Hanke (CEO of Niantic), Robert Antokol (CEO & Founder at Playtika), Rob Small (President & Co-Founder, Miniclip) and Tamzin Taylor (Head of Play Partnerships at Google).

We caught up with the authors to find out more.

Available now in print and digital. Link above
Available now in print and digital. Link above

How did you get together on the book? Were you both working on similar projects before collaborating?

Mathias: It's been a shared passion for many years. I joined a dinner that Jude hosted and we managed to get Sam Barratt, the Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy at the UN Environment Programme to join us, and that's what started the Playing For The Planet Alliance. We started talking about what we can do to push things forward and we were doing things from a game point of view and Jude was doing things from ads and survey point of view.

Jude: I'd mentioned to him a couple of times about writing a book, and he was like, oh, that's something I would love to do. I think the space needs it. If you do it, let me know.

So I did a whole bunch of research and when I started doing my interviews - during Covid while I knew people were at home - I interviewed Mathias. And by 2022 we had the research, we had the interviews and Mathias came on board. It worked out perfectly. He’s in the games industry and I’m on the periphery and so to have those two perspectives has been really valuable.

So who have you spoken to? Who’s in the book?

Jude: We have Ilkka [Paananen] from Supercell, Phil Spencer from Xbox, John Hanke from Niantic, and many more. And we went outside the games industry to get some quotes as well. So people like Richard Curtis the film director. He's very into the SDGs and uses media for impact, so we got him involved. And people like Bill McDermott, the CEO of ServiceNow he's a tech god, and interested in tech for good as well. So, yeah, we've got some good names and Mathias’ network is incredible.

Mathias: It's a shared project, but I definitely owe it to Jude that she got it started and that she got it done.

I'm intrigued by the idea of all these tech people wanting to be in a book. It seems quite quaint that they have all their channels but it’s a good old fashioned paper book that's got them together.

Jude: Yeah, the first two days that the book went on sale the Kindle copies were 99 cents, so we were saying “Just get Kindle copies” but everyone was wanting hard copies and asking us to sign them. I think people still love stuff to touch. If you think about gaming and gamers - they love swag - t-shirts, hoodies, memorabilia, things to touch. Gamers still love physical things even though we spend most of our time in the digital space.

“It’s the storytelling and the collaborative interactive aspect that makes gaming different. There’s a lot to learn from how the industry is taking action, and joining forces to take action.”
Jude Ower

Why is it that you think that the games industry is so pro-active in eco concerns? It seems that games - more than any other entertainment medium - has jumped up and wants to do something.

Mathias: I think there is a critical mass now and there is momentum. And let's be honest, it's way overdue. But at least now we're seeing bigger and bigger companies and more and more prominent people sharing their ideas and visions, and actual companies putting things into their games. Because there's a big difference between making a post on LinkedIn and reaching 500 or 1000 people, to reaching hundreds of millions of players and seeing what that might inspire them to do.

Jude: It's a really good point. The games industry is definitely leading the way when you compare it to other media. At the Playing For The Planet Alliance we sometimes have guests from other industries who’ll come in and give their perspective of how they're making change, but I think the thing about games is that we've been able to tell interactive stories. You’re problem solving and thinking about solutions. It’s the storytelling and the collaborative interactive aspect that makes gaming different from other forms of media, so there’s a lot to learn from how the industry is taking action, and joining forces to take action in collaborative ways

Is this a message of two halves? Part of this is to communicate to your contemporaries within the games industry, as to what they should be doing. And also reach out to players and get them to change their thinking too?

Mathias: So I don't want us to tell what people should be doing. I guess we want to inspire them to take the action that they feel they can, because it's one of those things where if you get too preachy, then people just turn it off.

But definitely, I think you're right, it's equally a message to the industry. Look, there's a lot of good things happening, be inspired by each other, continue doing the great things and do more. And for those of you who haven't started, please try something!

And then to the players, and also the wider public - to encourage them to seek purpose and to use their entertainment time on something that can spread awareness or encourage actions for a better planet.

And that’s the message behind the Playing For The Planet Alliance?

Jude: So when you join as a member, you have to state your commitment and your commitment has to be how you are going to reduce your carbon footprint, and also how you are going to engage your players in ‘green nudges’. With such huge audiences, there is an enormous opportunity to engage and enable players to take action for the planet. Commitments stated also help the UN track impact year on year and keep a track of progress.

We did a study in 2022 at the Green Game Jam and we had about 400,000 players respond and 87% said that they wanted to see more green game content in game. So if that's happening, then game studios are like, ok, let's give the players what they want, as well as for the planet.

Did you just use the term “green nudges”? That’s a new one on me. Tell me about that.

Jude: So it's just a term we came up with for when we were talking to game studios about what they can do. A green nudge is kind of an umbrella term because you could put that in storylines or content to raise awareness.

You could do really simple things like turn an in app purchase into a percentage of money for charity for green projects. Or you can get players to answer questions. All of this stuff can be kind of classed as a ‘green nudge’, whether it be to think about how you change your own behavior, learning about the topic, raising money or speaking up about it.

“If we can make that small, green nudge, then I think we've managed to accomplish something.”
Mathias Gredal Nørvig

Do you have any favourite examples?

Mathias: We recently did an integration with J Balvin and PlanetPlay where we tried to use him as a sort of ‘green nudge’ in that you can buy his limited-time, playable character and the proceeds from that would go to some of the environmental initiatives that PlanetPlay was supporting.

We've also used elements in the game environment to spread the message. For example, in a previous update, every nine seconds of playing you would see an element that would symbolize a better world, like a windmill or solar panel or a recycle symbol or waste bin. The tokens were also replaced by plastic bottles, so you were picking up trash as you ran along.

We don't believe that that means that everyone that played that update will then go out and completely rethink their lives because we know that convenience is still a challenge. We know that consumerism is still something that we need to address. But at least we hope that people have that feeling that this makes them think of something.

If we can make that small, green nudge, then I think we've managed to accomplish something.

Jude: Nitro Nation from Creative Mobile did a good one. They put in an electric vehicle and when you see that in-game you start to normalize what green really is day to day.

Mathias: Or Civilization Six. They added pollution as a factor. By doing that it meant that you couldn't just keep building faster. You had to think about how building fast also affects the people that live in the city and that changes your mindset.

I think that's a really interesting dynamic in any simulation game - you can actually build a direct link. You can connect the dots between what construction versus health really means.

OK. So if a company wanted to tackle environmental issues head on, what - typically - is the biggest headache that they’re going to face?

Jude: I think the big thing is in working out a carbon footprint because it's so complex. Xbox actually did a workshop a few months ago for Alliance members on how they've been doing it. You've got to figure out your footprint across all aspects of the business. It's not just the energy that your employees use, but the energy used to make a game, and play.

And then when your game’s out there there’s the data usage and all the stuff you can't control. But you can do things like you can encourage people to switch off their devices. When I spoke to Nic Walker, who was the COO of Space Ape he said that we're only looking at the tip of the iceberg right now, there's so much underneath the water that we just don't know about. Things like servers. You’ve got to look at your whole supply chain and dig into that and get to a plan of either reducing it or offsetting it.

Way back in the early days of getting games out there were worries about packaging and plastics and shipping things around the world. But now we're in a digital age we have problems like servers and liveops. It seems like the solution is now the problem.

Mathias: To a certain extent, yes. That's actually also one of the points of the book. We don't have enough insights as to what can be done to optimize these things. But the energy crisis in Europe meant that people perhaps were more receptive to eco issues. What if there was an eco mode in your game, would you activate it? A mode that spends 10% less battery time?

What if you could say “I don't need all the fancy graphics in the background, because I know that saves me 10% battery time”? I think people are more receptive to that. We know that servers are an issue. You can say Subway Surfers is a very light game and doesn't activate the server that much. But at the same time, of course, we know that we have over 150 million monthly active players so that’s massive numbers.

And that means that whatever you're touching, we also need to further optimize that whether that's through solar panels or whether that's through fission or fusion energy or whatever. But I think the good thing about moving from plastics and packaging to energy is that energy actually has a solution.

It's a completely different rabbit hole to go down. If you remove the need for plastics, then what else is being produced with the raw material? It doesn't look like removing single use straws will necessarily mean that we sell less plastic next year.

So what kind of measures are you undertaking within SYBO? What do you think that your contemporaries could and should be doing?

Mathias: So I see three things. I see what you can do as a company locally. I see what you can do as a messaging platform globally. And then I see what you can actually impact directly by doing things in the game and funding.

I think every company should do what we do. We have a lot of plants in the studio - it accumulates to four plants per person - so we have a very green office. We have an organic canteen, encouraging people to eat less meat and we had solar panels in the old buildings. We spent time trying to figure out all the ways where we can optimize and make a cleaner, greener studio.

That's the first part. The second part is what we can create for awareness for all the campaigns with Playing For The Planet where we put elements into the game. My argument is that if you have two equally good features, choose the one that's more socially just. If you have two equally good ideas, take the one that's more diverse, more green, more ‘right’ for the planet. By constantly nudging in the right direction, then eventually you'll get there.

This also removes that initial ‘analysis paralysis’, where if you can't do it perfectly, then why do anything? Just do something and do a little more every time. Keep plus-1-ing in everything you do. I would like every company to do what we do and I think we still could be doing more.

“The mobile industry could be one of the first industries to go carbon neutral. What does it require to run a Formula One race? What does it require to fly a football team to a stadium and so forth? And to build that stadium?”
Mathias Gredal Nørvig

But you’re a successful company and you’re looking for further success. Doesn’t that mean that you’ll be employing more and more people and cranking out more and more products? Isn't the problem just going to get bigger and bigger?

Mathias: You know, the mobile industry - especially the mobile industry - could be one of the first industries to go carbon neutral. I like the projects that PlanetPlay and Playing For The Planet are working on. I like what David Helgason is doing with his new project, Transition Labs.

Because we're not emitting that much compared to the amount of output, both in terms of GDP and export and the hours of entertainment, we’re relatively low emission compared to a lot of other industries.

What does it require to run a Formula One race? What does it require to fly a football team to a stadium and so forth? And to build that stadium?

So I think I'm actually quite optimistic that we can do something. The industry is obviously consolidating quite heavily right now so this is not the year to assume that the teams are getting bigger. We're seeing the opposite.

There are bigger companies that - if they want to - can really move the needle. Whether it's Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Google, Amazon and so forth. They have a lot of power and the more they achieve the more game makers can ask for this. Can we get the green stamp in the store? Can we also get the best server so that we can also say that our servers are emitting less? That would drive a lot of change for the industry, outside of games but to the tech and app industry at large.

What's coming next from you and SYBO?

Mathias: Thankfully we have a very strong pipeline and roadmap for our most known title Subway Surfers. A lot of things are coming into that game this year. We have one major product in development that we are excited to share more about in the near future, and we're prototyping a few minor titles we’re excited about as well. So it’s an exciting time to be at SYBO.

What would you like anyone reading the book to take away and action?

Jude: It's a really good question because when we were thinking about writing it, we were thinking about who it would be for. I think it's both for the industry and about raising awareness of all the good stuff that's happening and helping people to understand the power that games have to make real change. We'd love for the industry to stop being afraid to make an impact through their games, because more players want it.

This has been a big thing that I've been trying to work on over the past 10 years - the fact that consumers are ready for this. It’s trying to change the industry to help them to see how they can weave doing good into your game and achieve KPIs like user acquisition and engagement and monetization.

Mathias: The short answer is that I’d like ‘anything’. I would like action. They should action anything. If they are not doing anything, then they should do something. Do we need one bin per person and someone that changes the plastic bags every morning so that we can have a nice clean bin? Is it calling for town hall where you discuss what we could be doing? Is it starting a game jam to come up with a green feature that could be in your game? Is it a player community post where you ask your favourite game to be more green? Or you say ‘I like what this game is doing, couldn’t you do something similar’?

Your CEO needs to start talking about it. We're seeing a lot of good big companies talking about it, but I'm seeing too few CEOs echoing it. So the more the merrier. We are not perfect, but we want people to do as much as possible.

And if, if a studio did want to get involved with Playing For The Planet, how would, how would they go about that?

Jude: If anybody wants to get involved then to get in touch with me and the team because I would definitely love to help them. We've got a whole team and tools and that's what we do.

Mathias has done it and he's doing it. From a studio perspective people can learn from him and he's a role model. SYBO has really taken charge in this space. So, yeah, I'd be happy for them to reach out and we can have a chat.

And the book is out now?

Jude: Yes! It came out on February 12 and we’re now number one in the gaming category and interactive computing, which is cool.

Be sure to get your copy of Gaming For Good by Jude Ower and Mathias Gredal Nørvig here. The book offsets its own carbon footprint with 50% of profits being donated to green projects via PlanetPlay.