Playing Games



Gamification is a popular new trend being used all over.  It’s got applications everywhere: learning, research, fitness, and even in some workplaces.  It can be as simple as recognition for earning the most points.  It can be as complex as state of the art research.  The basic premise is simple: tap into the same thought processes that lead people to spend hours each day playing games (Bunny is probably on level 2000 by now) and use it to promote some desirable behaviour or to produce a useful result.  It’s been shown to be quite effective when done well, so I wondered how I could use it to help the M&Ms with their daily struggles.  If you’re not interested in all the details of how I implemented this for the M&Ms, you can skip to the bottom and read the results to see how it’s working out so far.


Anyone who currently has school age children (and almost everyone who hasn’t) has heard of Minecraft.  For the one person out there who hasn’t, it’s a game where you build things.  The graphics suck (intentionally) and there isn’t really any overall goal to it, but it’s ridiculously addictive.  The M&Ms love it, but Monster in particular has been obsessed with it since we first got it.  I decided to base our game on Minecraft to help them buy into it.

Character Sheets

To start out with, I made each of the M&Ms a character sheet.  To keep it simple, it has a picture of a character (started out with Steve, but since then they’ve decided that they want it to be Herobrine) with a health bar, and inventory slots for emeralds, emerald blocks, diamonds, and diamond blocks.  From there, they can complete quests to earn emeralds, which can be exchanged for diamonds or various rewards.  Diamonds can each be used to purchase 15 minutes of screen time.

The Goals

In the case of the M&Ms, I’m hoping to accomplish a few things:

Screen time

One of the main ones is to limit screen time for the M&Ms, as well as to make them more aware of how much screen time they’re having.  In the past, they’ve been allowed to play Minecraft for up to an hour a day, watch up to 40 minutes of online videos, play on the tablet while we’re driving, and occasionally watch another show.  Each of these limits has been put in when something was getting out of hand.  Most days, they ended up with an hour to an hour and a half of screen time, but occasionally they got a lot more.  Ideally we’d like this under an hour, and closer to half an hour most days, and we’d like them to earn the time that they do get.

To make the transition easier, I’m starting them out by giving them two free diamonds (a half-hour of screen time) for free each day, and they can buy more for one emerald each, to a maximum of four in a day.  As time goes on, I’ll reduce the free ones to one, and then zero, and increase the cost to two and then three emeralds each.


Another big goal is to encourage the M&Ms to take initiative and start their responsibilities without having to be reminded multiple times by Bunny and I to get their daily jobs done.  For this, I created a few daily quests (morning, time to go, homework, and bedtime).  They earn one emerald for completing them, and an extra emerald if I don’t have to give them any extra reminders.  If they don’t complete these daily quests, then their character will lose a health point.  If they finish all their daily quests in a day, they regain two health.  I haven’t decided yet what the result will be if they run out of health, but they haven’t lost a single one yet, so I’m not too worried.

Other Goals

A few other things I’m hoping to accomplish are: To get them to take more responsibility for housekeeping, to gradually increase their daily responsibilities, and to focus their time on learning or practicing various skills.  For the first one, part of their routines includes picking up toys, and I’m going to add optional quests that involve cleaning or tidying.  For the second, I’m gradually adding to their daily routines (cleaning up after breakfast, wiping the table and counter, making their beds, etc.).  For the third one, I’ll be adding quests like “practice typing for 15 minutes” or “15 minutes handwriting lessons” or other similar things.  This part is still a bit nebulous, and still a work in progress (as I imagine the game will always be, as their needs, abilities, and challenges change).

Results So Far

So far I’ve seen mixed results.  Monster is buying into the game much better than Monkey, so I may have to tweak things for Monkey to get him more invested.  I’m not sure how much of it is because of the age difference and how much is that different themes might motivate Monkey better.  I’ll experiment and see whether I can get Monkey more excited about it.  However, as the game was started mostly for Monsters struggles with ADHD, I’m not too worried at this point, and I’m focusing most of my attention on the results that he’s seeing.

The results on screen time have been exactly what I hoped for.  Monster carefully considers before deciding to buy a diamond whether he really wants to or not, and I think we’re averaging a total screen time somewhere around 45 minutes per day since we started the game.

As far as initiative goes, the results have been good, but not quite what I’d hoped for.  I can tell that Monster wants to earn the extra emerald for his daily quests, but often has difficulty staying on track.  For the time-to-go quest, the results have been spectacular, but not so much for the other three daily quests.  I’m going to look into ways to build reminders into the environment to help him get back on track.

Unintended Results

I haven’t noticed any negative results to the game at all.  Even the things I thought might be a problem haven’t.  I thought they might get upset when they run out of screen time, but this hasn’t happened (because they have the option to buy more, they haven’t actually hit the “hard limit” yet).

I have noticed two things that I hadn’t counted on though, both of which I’m very happy about.  The first is reading.  In the past, Monster has typically played on the tablet in the car if we’re driving for any length of time.  Since we started the game, he hasn’t wanted to use a diamond in the car even once.  Instead, he started reading a book the last time we drove somewhere.  I can’t remember the last time that he sat down on his own and read a book of his own volition.

The second is what he talks about.  When Monster was younger, before he played Minecraft, he would talk non-stop about nature, animals, plants, and science.  He loved watching documentaries and learning about all sorts of cool things.  Since he started playing Minecraft, he would talk non-stop about Minecraft (and occasionally Lego).  This morning, on the walk to school, Monster didn’t once mention Minecraft.  He talked about the ice, and then about bugs, and then about fish, and dolphins, whales, sharks.  He was asking questions about how dolphins hunt fish and talking about the documentaries he used to watch as if he’d just remembered they existed.

I don’t know if or how long the reading will continue, and I’m not completely certain that the suddenly renewed interest in nature is because of the game, but I hope they both continue.

If you want a copy of the character sheet I made to try it out, feel free to leave a comment and I can email it to you.  If you have any suggestions about things to add, remove, or change about the game, let me know.  I’m always looking to improve it.

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