Make your kids hate chores even more with HighScore House!

HighScore House is an online startup that offers to ‘gamify’ your children’s chores. They do chores. They get points (‘stars’). They spend those points on rewards (‘eat ice cream for breakfast’, ‘play video games for 30 mins’). I could just leave it at that, but my bloody-mindedness compels me to point out several disturbing things here.

First off, the obvious. Extrinsic motivation (like the clear ‘reward’ structure created here) does not help me to ‘love chores’, as HighScore House suggests. It makes me love rewards, and tells me that chores are obviously horrible detestable things whose only redeemable feature is the reward I will get for doing them. Two problems with this are ‘hedonic acclimation’ that tells us I will need ever greater rewards to motivate me (as Slash wrote, “I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do it, so the little got more and more”) and the fact that this type of extrinsic motivation actually extinguishes behaviour when it is removed – so when I finally move out of home and no one gives me an ice cream for cleaning my room, well, that’s the end of room cleaning!

Secondly, I can’t decide whether I am more concerned with the way it reinforces parental power (instead of imbuing children with a sense of responsibility), or the way it almost releives them of having to take responsibility for their own power by allowing them to defer to ‘the system’. “Sorry, little Johnny, no desert for you – computer says no.”

Thirdly, the team behind HighScore House compare their effort to Zynga games (Farmville and the like). Emulating Zynga is definitely a success strategy, but there seems to be a missing piece in how the brilliantly manipulative mechanics of Zynga games translates to HighScore House. Zynga have never been foolish enough to include ‘real world’ activity in their games, they have succeeded through;

  • play based on small tasks that build incremental addiction
  • managing the repetition to play to create habitual behaviour
  • enabling the creation of ‘owned spaces’ that players then give emotional value
  • massively leveraging social networks for propagation and normalisation

Sadly, HighScore House does none of this – their invocation of Zynga appears to be lip service only.

Okay, so the thing is set up by four guys who look like their mum probably still does their washing. And it’s not like they’re an established outfit receiving huge accolades and support. But they have been funded by VCs, which could be taken as a concerning (by utterly unsurprising) sign of the times. On a more positive note, perhaps it speaks to how much opportunity there is in the space for people who actually do it well. We shall see.

Sorry guys, ChoreWars and Farmville both do it better, and HighScore House is not a beautiful melding of the two.

4 thoughts on “Make your kids hate chores even more with HighScore House!

  1. Emush

    So how do you get a child to be intrinsinctly motivated to be tidy? The reward system is such an easy trap to find yourself in. (I’m recalling the ‘commissioning artwork’ incident with D in an attempt to get her to stop watching tv.

    1. brett Post author

      Good question – intrinsic motivation sounds so much easier!

      From a positive reinforcement approach (borrowing heavily on Canter here, who I have mixed feelings about), you should ignore the behaviour you don’t want to see, and ‘catch’ the child doing the right thing and praise that behaviour (however small). You should also single out others doing the right thing (this serves the double purpose of reinforcing their behaviour, and setting it up as an example for others) – this is most feasible with siblings, but praising the other parent for example would work too.

      Daniel Pink would say you need to create motivation through AUTONOMY, MASTERY and PURPOSE. So that means giving kids freedom as to HOW they keep things tidy, building a sense that tidiness is a skill to be honed, and trying to situate tidiness within a bigger narrative. To be fair, while these might sound a little far fetched, they do suggest that we need to think about WHY we need to be tidy. If we can explain WHY it is important to us that a child keep their room tidy, that may go a long way to answering these questions.

      Explaining (to the child) the WHY also leads to a more egalitarian approach of negotiation that is not based on a fixed system of rewards laid down by the adult (and here we are looking at Gordon and PET). Treat the tidy room like peace in the Middle East – work toward a mutually agreeable solution that arises from open negotiation between two parties. Even if the answer ends up looking superficially like a reward (you agree that when they clean their room on a Saturday you will take them to the movies), the solution is one that they have had a role in forming and are therefore a real stakeholder in. This teaches negotiation and responsibility, as well as helping the child develop empathy with others through the process.

      And in all of these cases, it is made clear that the solution is never a one-off. It is about consistency, maintaining a way of engaging that builds behaviour over time. Habits like tidiness are not made in an afternoon – sadly.

      1. Ben

        This game is really just a digital adaptation of a common parental “game”. My friends have a version on their fridge with star-stickers to motivate their 3-year-old to various tasks (and also to not do things – e.g. not being rough with his little brother).
        To play devil’s advocate, this game can be a way to address your point of praising good behaviour. In the fridge-based version, the act of putting the sticker on creates ceremony and importance around the praise.
        I’m sure someone who looked a lot like you recently told me that the act of doing something fed back into the psychological loop which included being the kind of person who does that kind of something? Could the behaviour itself be habit forming, even if motivated by an extrinsic reward? Are there some kind of behaviours which are extinguished when motivation is removed, and others which stick? (If so, is there a way to tell the difference? Tidiness is potentially compulsive?) Is this to do with how the rewards are introduced and then removed? (e.g. a highlighted “chore of the week”??)
        On another angle, do the rewards need to be extrinsic? Would carefully chosen rewards make this game work? A simple example: If you tidy up the loungeroom, then you get to do a favoured activity in the loungeroom. Sure, the intrinsic nature of the reward is a little forced, but how would you explain, to my friend’s 3-year-old, the intrinsic rewards of not shoving his little brother?
        “If you’re nice to your little brother for the rest of the week, we’ll take you both to [whatever] on the weekend” may be flawed (I wouldn’t be surprised if the first question was “does it have to be both of us?” – even the loveliest kids are evil 🙂 ) but probably not as flawed as “If you’re nice to your little brother, then he’ll like you more, and so will we”
        (Disclaimer: My room looks more like war in the Middle East)

        1. brett Post author

          I can’t help noticing that your examples all seem to involve being nice to your little brother. Just an observation…

          Hmmm… two things. First, the issue with extrinsic rewards not teaching well is that the behaviour is linked to the reward and stops when it does. Essentially, the brain decided that it is doing something ‘because of’ the reward and sees no reason to continue when the reward ceases. Slight caveat here is using partial reinforcement (only rewarding sometimes) as this tends to not be much more stable (hence the reason we keep putting money into slot machines). The more explicit and concrete you make the link “you do this and you get this” the more hot water I think you get into.

          Second, getting to do what you want in the lounge-room is not an intrinsic reward, it’s extrinsic. The challenge is to get older brother to feel the warm inner glow of how nice it feels not to slap his bro upside the head. Not an easy task, I admit. So, if we want to get the job done, psychology says we should resort to tactics that make the bribery option look positively angelic, like modelling: Do nice things to little brother (and big brother) and talk about how wonderful it makes you feel. Praise others who are nice to little brother (this is not to encourage them, it is to frame the behaviour as praise-worthy).

          Taking the manipulative to the extreme, Canter’s approach (mainly used in classrooms, a rough but useful description here: is about setting up ‘good behavior’, celebrating it and making it something that the kids will crawl over broken glass to demonstrate – in order that they are seen as ‘good’ (in the eyes of the teacher and the rest of the class). This is obviously fraught with danger in terms of compliance and conformity, but the alternative is a deeper more empathic approach that’s too much hard work for most people 😉


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