The Family Olympics

A Gamification Experiment for Families with Three Children.

From  NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) to PBL (points, badges, leaderboards), I’ve tried it all in my life as a parent of three. Long before the term became a fad, my husband and I intuitively arrived at gamification as a tool – the children learned to read on a scrabble board, we practiced basic arithmetic using playing cards, and for a few years, their most coveted reward for good behavior was a game of poker with mommy. But gamification is not about playing games for the games own sake, and neither is it about earning points for the sake of scoring, as I hope to show with my two personal examples below.


maxresdefaultGustav Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo


One thing about growing up in a socialist-slash-communist-wanna-be country is that practically everyone’s parents (and most grandparents) worked and city kids all went to kindergarten. This is where we had our first experience of behavior charts. But unlike the attractive and colorful ‘market-economy versions’, our chart was quite austere and straightforward. There were just two symbols – red and black dots, and two categories –  good or bad behavior.

As a natural born achiever, I thrived under this system, eagerly collecting red points and diligently avoiding the black ones. The fact that I have absolutely no recollection of any actual rewards or punishments associated with these status symbols only comes to confirm the superiority of intrinsic over extrinsic motivation. It also proved the power of the ‘collective’ (to cite the founding father of Soviet pedagogy, Makarenko) or in other words, the impact of peer pressure and competition.

About 25 years later, I found myself faced with a young and unruly ‘collective’ of my own – three children with a small age gap. At some stage, when all of them were already familiar with the red and black point system from kindergarten, I resorted to the chart at home. It was to be a short-lived experience and here is why.


What I did wrong with the behavior chart

My first mistake was that the whole system was totally intuitive and subjective (subject only to my own unarticulated perceptions of right/wrong, good/bad) and there were no explicitly identified rules, goals and rewards. I had not even set a goal for myself and was not targeting any behavior in particular. I wrongly presumed my children knew exactly when they were being good or bad. It was basically a desperate measure to get some momentary peace and quiet; just one more instrument in my tool box of threats and bribes.

My second mistake was that I underestimated the ferocious sibling rivalry raging in the family. My kids were already watching, measuring and internalising my every word, glance and action (‘there’s more water in the glass you gave to HER!!!’ was a typical indignant reaction at the time). The last thing they needed was yet another arena where they would compete with each other for parent attention and approval.

The third mistake was that I did not realize the punitive effect of the black dot. Being an avid gamer, I thought of the ‘dots’ simply as points, with the black ones invalidating the red ones and thus setting the score back. I did not in the least intend them as ‘punishment’, yet this is exactly how they were perceived in the absence of clear-cut rules (see mistake number one above).

As a result of these three failures on my part, my kids could only interpret the chart in terms of ‘she loves me/she loves me not’. Fortunately, a rebellion broke out soon enough and brought me to my senses.

One day I woke up to find huge black dots scrawled all over the chart with a marker pen. My middle child had added ‘mommy’ to the three chart columns and was punishing me with black dots with all the frustration and rage of a five-year-old.

That led to the untimely demise of the behavior chart (though I think it stayed up for quite a while as an edifying ‘writing on the wall’) and the black and red dots were left to do their work in the more objective, ‘public’ realm of the kindergarten.


3-babies-2Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo


What I did right with PBL

One summer vacation many years later (kids were aged 10 to 15 by then), we decided to stage our own family olympics. The very first edition included five disciplines: scrabble, darts, poker, swimming, and sit-ups. We awarded points for participation (had to be voluntary!), as well as for 1st and 2nd place. At the end of the 3-day olympics, the top scorer on the leaderboard won a home-made medal and got to keep it until the next edition of our improvised olympic games when it was handed over to the next overall champion.

What was right about this attempt at family gamification?

To begin with, it had a purpose. With three kids, it’s hard enough to spend more than five minutes in the same room without some fight or other breaking out, let alone have a good time together. My husband and I had come to treasure the rare moments when all five of us enjoyed an activity together. We wanted to reinforce a sense of community by building our own family traditions. We wanted to show the kids that our family was a great and fun place to be.

The hidden agenda had an excellent ‘official’ platform and a goal accepted by all – to declare the family champion in a fair competition with predefined rules.

Everyone had been involved in picking the competition categories and deciding the rules and this ensured adherence to a fundamental principle of gamification – voluntary participation.

Each family member excelled in at least one of the events included in our customized pentathlon and had a fair chance of winning a first-place badge (and the related bragging rights) if not the overall competition.

The point system was transparent and the leaderboard could in no way be taken as a reflection of how we felt about each other in real life.

The ultimate prize was a medal hand-crafted out of clay by the kids themselves which would be passed on to the next family champion. It was a fitting symbolic reward for the highly symbolic family olympics.

Last but certainly not least, our project met another essential condition of successful gamification: it was great fun!


enhanced-buzz-wide-1930-1431041030-15Finally a good excuse to post one of those cute kitten pics!


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