Gamifying Chores

During our move from Utah to California, we had a lot of things to do – preparing our house to rent, packing, loading, driving, finding a place to rent, unpacking, and the million tasks in between, such as researching areas, renting a truck, and navigating directions. As I have four children under the age of 13, there wasn’t much for them to do, and they kind of had to spectate and wait and watch as we moved.

We’ve never encouraged video games with our kids, but we let them use our iPhones, and the kids started downloading apps and occupying a lot of their time and attention playing simple little games. At first this was great, because the games seemed somewhat educational. Some games involved making and eating a cake, or dressing up a doll figure, or maintaining a farm, running and store and collecting gems, and so on.

Pretty soon our kids got more and more into these games, so that it wasn’t just a few installed games, but more than 15, and my iPhone was constantly missing. As soon as I would set it down, a kid would grab it and start playing a game.

My wife and I were concerned that our once perfect children had been corrupted by video games, so I deleted all the games off my phone. My wife announced a policy that the children would be allowed one hour a week to play their favorite games on the phones.

When I told the kids I’d deleted all the apps and their data, they were furious. Callie, my eight-year-old, was angry that I’d deleted all the data that she had “worked” so hard to accumulate. How could I do this, Dad? She said I should have just changed my password to my phone (smart kid).

As I started my new job at Badgeville, I started thinking about gamification. I’m pretty sure that kids, if not adults too, are hardwired for games. I’d been involved in both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and the whole setup of these programs is structured around games and badges.

For example, to get the Brownie painting badge, you have to do 5 activities (paint a still life, paint a mood, etc.). Scouting programs enjoy so much success because they gamify activities, and then provide status rewards in the form of badges for the scouts.

While my kids will play iPhone games for hours, they would rather pull their hair out than do the dishes or clean their rooms. But what if the chores were games? Perhaps if the chores were gamified, my kids might not resist the activities so much.

After all, I’ve learned to do the same with exercise. I don’t enjoy running, but I love playing basketball, which is an exercise game. When you add a ball and some rules to an exercise, the game context changes everything. I can run up and down the court for hours, and I’ll go at all lengths to play – even if I’m not feeling well.

First Attempts at Gamifying Chores

As a first attempt to gamify the chore list, I asked my 12-year-old to come up with an approach. After about 20 minutes, she came up with the following draft:

Gamified Chores page 1

Gamified Chores page 2

Avery puts an interesting spin on the chore game. As you increase to higher levels, you get more points for each chore. That makes things somewhat interesting.

If there’s one pattern in games, it’s that different levels present you with different challenges. The new adventure with each level you climb makes the game more interesting. The different levels often require you to formulate different strategies.


We’re still drafting out the chore game. What I’d like to move away from is the extrinsic reward in the form of prizes. Prizes are okay once in a while, but it’s an extrinsic motivator. Ideally, I’d like the motivation to involve status. It’s cheaper and potentially more motivating.

Here are a few ideas about status as a reward:

  • Level 1 unlocks the Kid of the Week badge and earns you a collage of personal pictures displayed above the fireplace.
  • Level 2 unlocks the Dinner Spotlight badge and lets you share about your day first at the dinner table, for as much time as you want.
  • Level 3 unlocks the Head Chef badge and allows you to choose the dinner menu one night a week.
  • Level 4 unlocks the Gameshow Host badge and lets you choose the game during family home evening night.
  • Level 5 unlocks the Travel Agent badge and lets you choose the family activity on Saturday (such as going to the beach, park, museum, or elsewhere).
  • Level 6 unlocks the Computer Whiz badge and gives you an hour on the computer each day.
  • Level 7 unlocks the Movie Critic badge and lets you pick the movie on Friday night movie night.
  • Level 8 unlocks the Adventure badge and earns you a Daddy-daughter or Mommy-daughter date.
  • Level 9 unlocks the Willy Wonka badge and lets you reach blindly into a candy bucket after dinner.
  • Level 10 unlocks the Bookworm badge and lets you choose a new book at Barnes and Noble.

Most of these badges won’t bankrupt you, except for level 10, which has to be a little more special than the others. Theoretically, the levels should get harder and harder. Perhaps each level represents 10 points, with each chore holding a single point value.

Some ways kids might earn points include the following chores:

  • Make sandwiches for everyone’s lunch (1 point).
  • Put away the dishes (1 point).
  • Clear the table (1 point).
  • Put away your laundry (1 point).
  • Read books to Molly (1 point).
  • Clean your room (1 point).
  • Sweep the floor (1 point).
  • Brush your teeth before school (1 point).
  • Set the table (1 point).
  • Help someone with her homework (1 point), and so on.

In gamification speak, these are the behaviors we want to reward. The challenge is to move beyond a simple points and reward system to something more interesting, strategic, and game-like. We’re not there yet. There’s not any strategy to the game, and without strategy, it’s not really game-like.

(By the way, in exploring strategies, we do want to avoid motivating the girls to compete against each other as students do in classes with curved grading. Ideally, we’d like to reward sisters for helping each other.)

I’m curious to hear if you’ve implemented any successful chore games to incentive your children.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Kate

    A really interesting idea! I wonder if some strategy might revolve around speed doing the chores, as long as quality did not deteriorate? When I ran a childrens home in Ghana, I used to get fed up with all the laundry that was never put away. The clothes line would be sagging under mountains of washing that stayed out all weather for days and days. The whites got browner and the only time the kids ever went out to collect thier washing was when they finally hit the bottom of the clothes in their cupboard. I introduced a sort of game whereby they knew that sometime on a Sunday I was going to go around and collect every bit of washing off the line. For every bit of washing remaining on the line, I deducted some pocket money. I know that this was negative reinforcement, but it worked. Prior to my being in charge of them, they never had pocket money… and they were always hassling me for money for school for things their teacher wanted (it was Africa after all and the educational frills budget of the school was non existent). I told them that if I gave them pocket money, they could decide when they wanted to give money to the teacher and what causes they wanted to support that thier teacher was asking for – as long as they no longer came to me. They had to budget if for themselves. I ended up giving less in pocket money than I had been prior to inroducing the scheme, and all the badgering ended too!

    Back to the washing, the kids would realise when I was about to do the rounds and there would be a mad scramble as they raced ahead of me to get to the line. The second part of the challenge was whoever had the tidiest cupboard got an additional reward (which included all clean clothes neatly folded). The tidiest cupboard would equate to the tidiest room in the West (since the kids in the home lived 10 to a room). Cleanliness and tidiness improved markedly over the space of a month and stayed that way with that system in place. I no longer scolded them about thier chores…. it all just magically started happening. interestingly as a reward they liked to not only choose the meal, but to cook it. Soon we had sort of masterchef happening, and each kid became a specialist in thier selected dish, which they took great pride in. The woman whom we had coming to help cook and be housemum could relax! She loved it, training the kids up in the recipes that they wanted to learn.

    • tjohnson

      Kate, thanks for sharing your experiences in Ghana. It’s not everyday that someone who has managed a children’s home in Ghana comments on my blog. I found your experience fascinating, and I’m glad to hear you were successful with the games. Kids absolutely love cooking (at least mine do), so I can see how that would be a major reward.

      You’ve given me a lot of ideas to explore. I also want to say thank you for your service to children in other parts of the world! I think it must take a lot of patience and love to manage a home that has ten children per room.

  • Shweta

    We had a game for the team where we won badges for certain things such as Wiki expertise, Mentoring, Product Expertise, Customer Relationship etc. As far as I remember, the real problem wasn’t motivation, but the problem was prize. We got a badge in a virtual world, but did not have a place to display it. There was appreciation, but no recognition.

    It kinda fizzed out. We were exited in the beginning, but you need some “visible” awards (not-necessary money spending) to sustain the interest in the game!

    • tjohnson

      Shweta, I think the visible location for the status display is key, especially displayed in a community that matters to you. This is a good point to remember and is one of the challenges of the online badge.

  • Mark Baker

    Mary Poppins was ahead of her time.

    So was Tom Sawyer, come to think of it.

    • tjohnson

      Wow, you’re spot on here, Mark. I really like those opening lines in Mary Poppins. So relevant. Thanks for linking to the video.

      I’m eager to gamify my blog at some point.

  • Cindy Fisher

    I love this! I grew up in a family of 10, and we were always looking for ways to motivate us to clean. I remember such things as, “Let’s see who can pick up the most things during this commercial break, clean to the beat of the music, and let’s reward ourselves with a trip to Dairy Queen if we get these dishes done.”

    Now that I’m the mother, I have found I like to view chores like a sport. I line up my girls and tell them we’re training for the cleaning Olympics. I give them each a shot of “power juice” (which is usually a straight shot of lemon juice) and I say, “We have five minutes to clean the front room. Starting…now!” Then when it’s time to clean the bathroom, I reduce the time required by a minute and see if they can beat that time. Perhaps this seems like competition, but they’re all working together on the same team, and it surprisingly works. Usually after each task is accomplished, I gather them in like a coach and give them a pep talk and another squirt of “power juice.”

    • tjohnson

      Cindy, you must have a lot of energy. I know my kids also like it when I make cleaning a game, but it takes so much energy to approach it like this.

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Josh Wall

    I’m not a parent, so I don’t have experience in this from that point of view, but being a game enthusiast, I have been thinking lately about what makes the challenges in a game more enticing than the challenges of real-life’s “chores.” I found some interesting thoughts on the matter in a TED talk recently:

    Understanding and leveraging gamification seems like it could impact a lot of life: the software my company makes, my documentation for it, and even my personal behavior and goals, but I’m not sure exactly how yet. Please keep us posted as you figure more of this out.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with this, Tom!

    • tjohnson

      Josh, I will keep writing about gamification from time to time. I’m still pretty new to it. If you think about it, blogging is a kind of game. Comments are a reward for posts.

      We always need some kind of reward to motivate us. The best rewards are those that speak to our intrinsic values and goals.

  • Amit

    Hi, excellent post. I have been thinking of gamifying the daily activities of my son(getting up on time, brushing, and others), and your post gives me so ideas to start with. I will definitely share my progress with you

    • tjohnson

      Thanks for commenting, Amit. Let me know if you find some techniques that work well for you.

  • Jen

    I love this idea! Unlocking badges on Foursquare or GetGlued always gives me a little boos, silly as it is.

    • Tom Johnson

      You know, I need to keep up with new social tools more regularly. I’d seen the Glue share icon but hadn’t explored GetGlued yet. It’s on my list.

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  • Aaron

    Wow, gamyfying chores sounds like a great Idea. Kids love being able to feel like they are doing something fun. I think the rewards are great! Getting able to choose dinner is a big deal lol. When I was a kid my parents gave me no fun option though.

    The reason I find gamyfing cool is become I am a game developer. There is a website that helps peopl find gam testing gigs. Check it out.

    Become A Qa Tester

  • Michelle Glauser

    I’d love to hear how the gamifying of chores is going.

    • Tom Johnson

      It worked well for a while. Our second-oldest turned out to be a points leader from the start — more diligent than all the others. I think she appreciated an explicit list of rules to follow more than anything.

      I did learn a few lessons:
      – Put a timeline on the points. When one person hits the top, she loses motivation to keep going. End the whole game after a month or so.
      – Make the rewards simple to dispense. Don’t put yourself up to creating heavy tasks like photo collages and such.
      – Consider what happens when you remove the point system. Will kids learn that chores are only worth doing if they have points associated with them? That thought kind of made me hesitant to gamify everything.

      BTW, we’re hiring engineers, both back-end and front-end. Are you interested, or do you know people who might be?

  • Eugene T.S. Wong


    Thanks for sharing.

    I’ve been struggling with chores, and I really need a motivator, so it is comforting to see other people struggling with it and using gamification.

    I also wanted to setup a fundraiser for groups that uses sales. I think that the challenges are the same as the challenges with chores.

    I think the ticket is to create a lot of ways of measuring activity, and to allow for as many ways of achieving goals as possible.

    Reading comments gave me an idea. Instead of giving out prizes that cost money, perhaps let them colour in a square of graph paper. If they could colour in only 1 square per chore, then they could get a piece done in 1 – 4 weeks.

    Colouring in the square is a prize in and of itself, but you could go 1 further. At the end of the week, you could give out badges for the reddest page [i.e. most red squares], the blackest page, the greenest page, etc. An artistic badge could go to the prettiest picture, which is determined by Dad, Mom, and the last winner. The more badges; the better.

    For competitiveness, they could use the primary colours, only if they do the connected chores. Black, grey, and “white” could be available for cooperative chores.

    To cooperate, somebody could share a claimed chore. If I had chosen to wash dishes, then I could find a way of creating an efficient assembly line, or breaking it down into smaller parts. Perhaps I would then have to share some of my “square colouring” in exchange. If selling were to take place, then the finished pictures might show squares that are half 1 colour and half another.

    Sincerely, and with thanks,