Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Game Up Your Life

Many years ago I read a book by Jane McGonigal called Reality is Broken. While I remember not agreeing with many of her points (you can read my review of it here) I did find her main idea intriguing - the idea that everything not only can, but maybe should be turned into a game, to motivate people to do things they wouldn't normally do. Things that would not only benefit themselves by having fun (ideally) but also have an added benefit of helping someone or something else.

This is in fact something that has been explored further and even put to use in many different ways since. One that comes to mind is allowing the public to sort through vast amounts of pottery shards to find the ones that could hold interesting information in some ways. Rather than having some poor archaeology students spend countless of man hours on what would ordinarily be considered a tedious and menial task, you can turn the "pottery shard sorting" into a sort of mini-game and by making enough people interested you can not only get the job done quickly, but by people who are having a good time doing it.

The book in cuneiform.

That is the idea in a nutshell, and I love it. Like I said it has been used many times before and I think it holds great potential. I have also explored the idea before myself in a couple of blog posts. I guess you can see this blog post as a pre-cursor to this one. So yet again this idea had me thinking and it made me wonder if not maybe we could put it to use at a much smaller level. I mean much, much smaller.

How about using it as a way to motivate and even enthuse a child to the prospect of having to do something they would ordinarily not want to do? As the proud mother of a 6 year old I am always eager to find ideas that allow me to keep my child happy and me less nagging and annoyed. Some times when you just want and really need your child to co-operate you usually have two paths to take - the one of threats and the one of bribes. I am not a huge fan of either of these. What if there was a third path? One that made the child interested in the project at hand without you having to resort to future wrath or promise of goodies?

Well, in a way I guess this idea is a bit of both really - but packed and presented in a way that makes it clear that we're not talking about any real threats or bribes, but game-ones.

I'll give some examples from my own experiences:
Going from point A to point B (that'll take more than 5 minutes). I'm not even kidding, most of the time even though my kid can run around and scream endlessly if he wants to, when he doesn't want to he is suddenly struck with debilitating laziness and can barely walk. It can be beyond frustrating, especially if you have a time to keep (which is often the case). I've had my kid tell me he couldn't walk because his leg hurt so much, but if he got to take the longer way around it was fine. This kind of illogical reasoning is something that crops up all the time with kids, but it all boils down to one thing - this is boring and I don't want to do it.

Most of the time if I can allow my kid to get it his way (and it also suits my way enough) I will. But some times that is just not the case. Maybe you need to get to the train station and you just missed the bus? Your kid doesn't enjoy the prospect of having to walk (maybe exasperated by the fact they had been looking forward to a bus ride) and the idea of carrying him and the luggage the entire way is just not feasible. What to do?

The book in regular letters.

What about turning the walk to the train station in to a video game? If you've got time to prepare it's of course the best, but even a quick plan could work wonders. Quickly map out the path you're going to take in your head. Where could there be a "boss" for you to fight? Where is there a "pit" to jump or a "treasure" to find? Add "npcs" and "objects of interest" as it fits the path and a dash of invested story telling and you'll suddenly, possibly, have a really interested 6 year old.

I use the word "video game" but really it's just a game or any old adventure. To me personally it helps to think of it as a video game because video games are usually well structured in the way of "levels", "items" and "bosses". If Dungeons & Dragons is your type of reference that's just great.

Me and the 6 yo actually had to take a rather long walk the other day and while we could've taken the tram I decided I wanted and needed the fresh air. As we started walking it took about 3 minutes before my kid said he didn't want to walk any further. I told him he better get prepared because over at X place there was a boss waiting for him and he still had to find the SWORD to beat it with. He got a big smile on his face - "where is it?". I pointed to a row of stones - "it's behind one of those but beware, because the wrong ones have monsters behind them instead". He ran ahead to the stones and started to look. "Tough luck, there is a monster!" I said and he had a pretend battle with it. After a couple of other monsters he managed to find his "sword" which he proudly carried (invisible in his hand) all the way to the boss.

On this trip we also had to find a shield, kill that first boss, then find a scroll of turn-to-stone to get past the cave troll, then speak to the fairy to recharge the scroll, then find our wings to fly up a mountain... The entire time there wasn't a word about not having energy to walk, just eagerness to continue forward to the next thing.

Not the cave troll in the article.

Another example - cleaning/tidying. If you could grade kids on a scale of how easy it is to get them to at least do some tidying I think my 6 yo ends up somewhere around 2, 1 being impossible. It doesn't matter that he literally just threw every book in his bookshelf on the floor in the search for something, when I ask him to pick it up (even offering to help) the answer is always "I don't have the energy to do that!". Well duh. Like anyone does.

Suffice to say, many tactics have been used to try to motivate my kid to pick things up after him, or at least help out in doing so. Whenever he does show interest in helping out with cleaning it's often things where I don't really trust that things won't break like him doing the dishes or him swinging around a mop. I still try to encourage him when he does show interest, because at least it is something.

But what if cleaning could be turned into a game? I tried it. We drew up an avatar, I told him it could be anything (he chose a jellyfish) and I said there were different things he could purchase for this avatar i.e draw on to the picture. Things like spikes, sun glasses, a fish pal or a big shark. But these things cost points that he had to earn by doing different chores.

He was excited. "What can I do to earn points mom?". "Well you can start by picking up all these Legos, that's 10 points.". "How much is the fish friend?". "That's 50 points. The sunglasses are 10 points". "Ok, cool". He started picking up the Lego. I can't emphasize enough how much more nagging and time this would've have taken normally. Threats, which I am generally not a fan of anyway (but every parent resort to them eventually) just do not work on this kid, so that's never been a real option. Just asking him to do it out of the kindness of his heart and because it would make mom really happy... well let's just say he hasn't really grasped the benefits of that yet (I'll get back to this momentarily).


But with this system he not only tidied without any problems, he asked for more things to help out with. I soon struggled to keep him occupied - my fault really as I should've been ready with enough chores for him to do to be able to get every special item for his jelly fish. Funnily enough, even when he had enough points to buy things he decided he wanted to save them. Maybe for the next time we tidy.

So far so well, I can see this system with a bit of tinkering easily being adapted to a whole plethora of situations. I do have thoughts though and I don't think it's just a wonder wand of solving every issue regarding motivating my 6 yo.

For instance, as mentioned, shouldn't kids learn that tidying is its own reward? That listening to someone else and doing what they want can be a nice thing to do even if there isn't an immediate reward involved? Are immediate rewards really the right way to go about everything? Some things in life simply don't pay off until later on, and isn't that a really important lesson to learn as well?

Yes, I totally agree with all these points and they require some careful consideration. I often tell my kid that everything can't be fun right now. Some times, some things you do are not so fun right now so that you can have more fun later. Having a nice and tidy home or making your friends and family happy can be its own reward and a good one at that.

But I also subscribe to the Friends school of altruism, i.e that there isn't any. Everything we do, we do in some way or other for our own sake. If I give money to charity it is to make myself feel better about making other people feel better. If I clean my home it because I feel good about having a clean home. I don't think this is a bad thing. A deed can be "good" regardless of the underlying reasons behind it. I don't think a recipient of a needed organ for instance really cares of the reasons behind the donors wish to donate.

So where am I getting with this? That yeah, it's important to teach a kid about different ways things can be rewarding but I also think that it's important to find ways that something can be rewarding for that person (in this case my kid). When you're 6, it's good to hear someone ask you to be nice for its own sake but it's also good to just get to have fun doing something.

And maybe we do things for future reward because we haven't learned how to make it fun right now? I would feel good from doing excercise for instance, but that doesn't mean that the excercise in itself can't be fun too? I like when things are clean but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong in making the cleaning part fun as well?

The main drawback to this system would be that it requires either some planning or good on the spot thinking/improvisation. Also, as with anything else, different people enjoy different things. If your kid happens to be the kind that just listens and does their tidying then congratulations! What your kid needs really depends on what kind of person they are and there isn't just one way to do things. This isn't the way, this could be another way when you're sick of nagging or just having to do it yourself. I think it could also teach the lesson that things that might look tedious on the surface can be made fun if you try to.

I think the reason this appeals so much to me is because I am not easily motivated to do things I don't enjoy. The whole "just do it" or "discipline!" way of doing things has never worked for me. Fortunately it is offset by my optimistic personality and the fact that I see the possibility of fun in most things. But there are some things I just don't like doing. Exercising… cleaning… getting out of bed before 12 (before I had kids, now they're my motivation and I haven't slept past 9 for the last 6 years). I am not a goal hunter, I need to find the journey to my goal entertaining as well or I will struggle to get it done. I guess in that way I am still like a child, for better or worse.

As you've noticed it's an idea that really jives with me. We like to set up goals and motivate ourselves to get there, but maybe we should spend equal time trying to make the journey there fun?

Also, credit to a book that still has me thinking about it 9 years down the road.

Images from wired.com, skullstore.ca, fantasyflightgames.com, me.me.

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