How to Use Gamification to Solve Parenting (Kind of)

Nov 10, 2016

The term "gamification" means pretty much what you think it does: make something into a game. There’s more to it, and there are many different philosophies on how it works, but the concept involves adding gaming elements like scoring points, competition, levelling up, and even winning prizes to ordinary tasks or activities.

Lifehacker does a good job of breaking down the brain chemistry of why this appeals to many people, but also points out the allure is often short term and doesn’t work on everyone.
Gamification is big in certain spheres of the corporate world and online marketing, but we’re going to focus on how it can be used within families.

So gamification means tricking someone into doing something by making it fun?

Depending on which gamification guru you follow, it’s bigger than that. It’s more about harnessing innate natural desires and core drives — including validation and growth — to encourage people to participate in small tasks, whether flossing teeth, getting in shape, or finishing chores that keep getting put off.
For example, say you have a to-do list full of jobs like sorting the laundry, vacuuming, picking up groceries, and decluttering the garage. If you get everything accomplished within a time frame, you tell yourself you get some sort of treat. Each time you cross something off that list, you’ll feel a twinge of pride — with each task done, you come closer to ‘winning.’ Vacuuming doesn’t magically become a joy-filled romp by being gamified, but it becomes a quest you need to fulfil to get to the big prize.

This kind of motivation is only one way to think about gamification. Other examples can be loyalty programs that give you points for purchases, language-learning apps that rewarding your accomplishments with virtual badges, and even your car keeping a record of your most efficient driving practices, encouraging you to beat your personal best.

Gamification is only a tool and, like everything tech-related, it’s about finding the right balance for your family.

What are some examples of gamification apps?

Some apps aim to gamify anything and everything. Habitica essentially transforms your life into an epic old-school role playing game — gain experience points for decluttering the closet and lose hit points for skipping out on your morning yoga session.
Some apps are more specific to fitness and health — rewarding or punishing you for your dietary choices and cardio sessions. (One in particular, Zombies, Run!, makes your daily jog a desperate bid for freedom from the advancing undead.) Others focus on your mood and mindfulness.

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OK, but what does this have to do with parenting?

As a buzzword, gamification is only a few years old, but parents have been using these same strategies on kids forever. Need your little ones to clean their rooms? Challenge them to see who’s faster — or better, time them to see if they can beat their record by working together. Want your kids to regularly put away the dishes after a meal? Tell them they get one point every time they do it without being asked; if they reach five points, they can get an extra 15 minutes of screen time. One parent took this points system to its logical conclusion, creating a Skyrim-inspired Game of Chores board to encourage her family to do housework in the name of ice cream treats.

A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal profiled a bunch of the apps that gamified chores. Choremonster and You Rule created a new market of sweeping floors and going to bed without meltdowns in the name of virtual credits (to be redeemed for allowances or extra videogame time).
Outside the chore realm, there are many apps that take a gamified approach to learning. (Again, this is nothing new — Oregon Trail taught middle-schoolers about dysentery decades ago and Donkey Kong Jr. Math was totally a thing.)
From playing a musical instrument to offering basic science lessons, apps can encourage kids to stick with tough subjects by giving learning the same feel as the games they play for pure entertainment.

So I can just make everything a game and solve parenting, right?

Gamification is only a tool and, like everything tech-related, it’s about finding the right balance for your family. In other words, it can be great when it’s a fun incentive for your kids to do their chores or a nice way to get them to practice their typing or piano or Spanish. However, once you start gamifying every task or responsibility, you run the risk of imparting the wrong message.

There are certain things kids will be expected to do without promise of a prize, and there will always be tasks that have to be completed even when they aren’t linked to a feeling of personal growth or a virtual gold star. Also, not all lessons are going to feel like games, but kids will still need to be engaged enough to learn.
Whether in an app or on a chart stuck to the fridge, though, occasionally earning points for making your bed can be pretty cool.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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