Experiments with Motivation

In general, I struggle a fair bit with motivation. Add that to the fact that I speak English during my work as a teacher, and it’s no surprise that making myself study Mandarin regularly can be a challenge. Now that I can buy food, greet people, ask directions, and have short, simple conversations in the language, the inherent necessities of survival no longer push me to learn more. It’s become easy to let the days slip through my fingers without going out of my way to meet more Chinese people or study their language. I know that conversing freely and forming strong friendships with people who speak no English would make my time in China all the more worthwhile, so I always keep an eye open for creative ways to increase my drive to learn Chinese.

Molly and I have found a tool to keep us moving forward. Recently, we watched a TED Talk about what video-game designers have learned about motivation—and how those principles can be applied to daily life. Then we found a website called Chore Wars, which is based on a simple idea: you create a virtual character that earns virtual experience and gold when you complete real-world tasks. Each group of players formulates its own agenda, so the cyber adventures Molly and I have embarked upon are oriented around learning Mandarin. There’s no actual game; the website only keeps track of the hours we’ve spent studying, and then it distributes virtual rewards.


Andrew and his wife can access their money only after logging language hours.

What makes it work for us is how we’ve tied the virtual rewards to real-world benefits. In the game, all the rewards are randomized, as it’s been shown that a 10 percent chance of earning 100 dollars is much more motivating than a 100 percent chance of earning 10 dollars. We decided that the gold we earn in the game is needed to access our real-world salaries and that there’s a one-to-one exchange rate between virtual gold and Chinese yuan. If we want to eat, we have to study. If we don’t study, everything stays in the bank. As you can imagine, this has provided us with a huge boost in motivation. We’ve used a rather goofy website to strengthen the link between language learning and meeting our basic needs. I’ve created a system so that studying Mandarin isn’t just a good idea; I need to study it to thrive.

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  • Paulette

    Thank you so much for the idea. I am trying the chore wars to see if it motivates my 12-year-old to do household chores!

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