How I gamified dish-washing without knowing.

Dishes. Soap. Water. They go together like a misplaced metaphor next to poor self-expression capabilities. And yet there always was something in the process of dish-washing that I always liked, alongside generally disliking the process of putting clean dishes back to their designated cupboard place. And today, while doing the dishes, a realization finally struck me: I’ve gamified dish-washing some decade and a half ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Now, let’s talk gamification. Sebastian Deterding and colleagues define gamifcation as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. This definition breaks the somewhat vague traditional meaning of gamification and puts it into a broader context, placing it alongside such phenomena as pervasive gaming or serious gaming. For them, gamification takes some elements of a (good) game design (namely, elements readily associated with games and play) and inserts them into an environment where such elements can boost certain actions, themselves not games. They also distinguish between gamification and simple addition of points and badges, dismissing the argument that “games themselves can be gamified” [p7], as in the case of adding an achievement system to an existing game (seemingly unrelated to the tasks of the game itself). For me, it’s tied to the view on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and their role in gamification. The consensus among designers seems to be that an intrinsic reward tied to the world of the game (you get more strength points for killing enemies, so now you can kill harder enemies) is far better than extrinsic reward (you killed X enemies, here’s a badge for you which has no effect on the game).

Back to dishes. Usually, I delay washing until there is some amount in the sink. I rarely do them immediately after a meal. Best case scenario: at the end of the day. Worst case: the day after. I do not dry them with a towel, as I’ve seen many of my Dutch friends do, but rather place them in dish drying contraption of some sorts.

Ever since I started washing dishes as a child, it has been probably my favourite chore. And the reason for that, as I see know, is that I gamified the process in my mind, with an intrinsic sort of motivation tied to a very game-specific element: the conquest of space. The dishes tend to pile up randomly in and around the sink, with my task is to not only wash them, but also place them in the dryer. And this is the tricky part. While mindless as most house chores, requiring little to none cognitive abilities, dish-washing lets me practice my spatial perception and planning. Choosing what dish to wash firs, and thinking back from how to end up with a nicely stacked dish dryer (which has finite space) makes dish washing into a more than just a process.

While distinctly different from playing, let’s say, an RTS game like Starcraft, it essentially utilizes a lot of the same elements: keeping in mind what objects you have, estimating their future use, manoeuvring around the limitations of space, getting better with time. Furthermore, though mostly I wash the same plates and forks, there is some randomness occurring still, with the occasional Tupperware box, pot or frying pan getting in the mix. Dishwashing also has several losing conditions, from the tragic water stream ricochet caused by a misplaced spoon, to the finite no-more-room endgame which requires me to postpone washing and constitutes remorseful defeat.

To iterate, this is not some chores-for-points thing where house dwellers compete for god-knows-what. I still remember Jane McGonigal describing slipping out of bed just to beat her partner in “who cleans the toilet first” game in her Reality is Broken book, thinking that it will only work with a very specific type of person. No, my Dish Commander (Rules of Endishment? World of Dishcraft? Wash of Duty?) is single-player, simple and most importantly, intrinsic. Each clean sink bring a satisfaction of a game well played. As it should be.

One thought on “How I gamified dish-washing without knowing.

  1. Nice post, Alex. I think I have a kind of a similar approach (though seeing dirty dishes in the morning is not my favourite experience and I’d try do it in the end of the day max). And the arrangement of the washed plates is indeed quite an important element. One addition: when my intrinsic motivation is not enough, I would include some sort of reward – for example, I would take a cookie only after I finish 🙂

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