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The Inner Tree-Hugging Gamer in You

Video-game mavens have snapped up more than six million copies of "Grand Theft Auto: IV" in its first week in stores, obliterating sales records and apparently making it the best-received interactive entertainment item in history. At first glance (and, perhaps, second and third), this might seem to have little to do with energy conservation. Success in GTA results in large measure from carjacking, robbery, and general thuggery. These tactics are not usually considered promising avenues to improving energy efficiency, though perhaps, if applied strategically to wavering members of Congress, they could hasten the passage of cap-and-trade legislation.

In any event, the principle underlying GTA's success is obvious. There are few things Americans--especially of the male variety--love more than either cars or competition, and the two in combination are a nearly unbeatable pair. Which is why we're pleased by the recent trend in the automobile industry, in which it's become increasingly common for carmakers to include fuel-efficiency gauges that display prominently the number of miles per gallon a car is getting at each instant. Toyota's Prius, among other models, comes with such a gauge, and Nissan announced last year that all new vehicles will be equipped with one. In trials, the gauge has prompted smoother and more efficient driving, which can increase fuel efficiency by 10 percent or more. Conservation, which was once, in the words of Vice President Cheney, merely a "sign of personal virtue, " becomes something far more appealing: a sign of personal superiority. It would be even better if the gauges displayed one's fuel-efficiency percentile, putting Americans in direct competition with each other for gas-sipping bragging rights.

In fact, it's becoming clear that the strategy of calling the public's attention to its energy-consumption habits holds real promise for spurring more efficient living. A few years ago, Mark Martinez, manager of program development at Southern California Edison, was searching for ways to get the utility's customers to conserve electricity. He hit upon the idea of an Ambient Orb, a small globe which he programmed to glow red when electricity consumption was high (making power from the grid more expensive) and green when it was low. Within weeks, customers to whom Martinez handed out Ambient Orbs had reduced their peak-period power usage by about 40 percent, voluntarily saving both money and energy (see Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein's recent piece, "Easy Does It," April 9).

Americans consume more energy per capita than any G-8 country besides Canada, and we don't have wicked Winnipeg winters to contend with. (We do have Winnipeg's hockey team, but that's another matter.) Changing this sorry state will require smarter public policy and a more reasoned debate than we've had so far. But it will also require something more--an appeal to the gamer in each of us.

By The Editors