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Tech by VICE

Just Gamify Dental Hygiene Already

The fun of quantifying everything finally comes to teeth brushing.

by Ben Richmond
May 13 2014, 8:05pm

I don't really know many kids anymore—I used to know lots of kids, but they all steadily turned into adults—but when someone tells me its hard to get kids to brush their teeth, I believe it. After all, even as an adult, I'm not all that crazy about brushing my teeth. It's just one more damn thing I have to do, before going to work or to bed.

But thank goodness at least someone is looking out for the sanity of parents and the dental hygiene of children and man-children alike, and gamifying basic hygiene into a video game. And best of all, it has a hilarious portmanteau for a name: the Grush.


The Indiegogo page explains how the Grush comes with a Grush app, which includes games for brushing, as well as a phone-mount for your bathroom mirror (which, yesterday, I would've said was the least necessary thing in the world, but thanks to Grush, seems as crucial as penicillin). The Grush communicates with the phone and shows you how your brushing, and the games guide kids through brushing in by having them fly airplanes, take care of pets, lead a tooth orchestra or kill (hunt?) tooth monsters.

It also is always collecting data to tattle on kids who skip brushing, so it's got that helicopter parent appeal, and the Grush team hopes that kids enjoy the games, if not enough to love dental hygiene, then at least enough to go brush their teeth more cheerfully.

They're also looking into getting popular characters to put into the games, which I think is sort of a big mistake. As someone who, instead of a Super Nintendo, was given “Mario Teaches Typing,” let me tell you: Kids are completely susceptible to branding, but they know when a game is a thinly veiled way to teach them something, just like how they know the difference between bubble gum and bubble gum-flavored toothpaste.

The other potential criticism out there, I suppose, is that Grush is another incursion by apps and screens into the spaces in our lives long thought to be already filled with other activities. Personally, brushing my teeth hasn't ever yielded any great thoughts to my recollection, but I remember a classmate in college who would overcome writer's blocks with teeth brushing. J.D. Salinger's Seymour Glass was said to have brushed his teeth in furrowed brow concentration. If its valuable enough time for you already, you don't need the Grush incentive, I suppose. For most of us, teeth brushing is just a fact of life that has the mild upside of good breath.

Which is why it's sort of perfect for adults, actually.

Life is what happens as you slowly empty toothpaste tubes, and games are little more than a series of obstacles for delaying arbitrary accomplishments, in order to pass the time between brushings more pleasantly.

For a certain type of person, quantifying things is not only enjoyable—it's the only way to enjoy things. These are people—wearing pedometers and obsessing on “Track My Run”—who are addicted to the feedback on how they're doing, and are, if not obsessed, at least interested in improving. A cynic might call this impulse another form of narcissism and self-obsession, and maybe for some people it is, but if you have to do tedious stuff like exercise and practice basic hygiene, you may as well do everything you can to make it fun.

A great piece by Nikil Saval over at Pacific Standard elucidates the link between the contemporary world of life hacking and Taylorism—the name assigned to the work philosophy of one Frederick Winslow Taylor, who Saval describes as “an engineer who set out to rationalize what he saw as the lackadaisical, ad hoc planning of factory production,” in the early 20th century:

He tried to standardize workmen’s tools (in today’s parlance, we might say he hacked the coal shovel); he introduced piece-rate pay systems to induce competition among workers; and, most famously, he brought men with stop watches to measure the efficiency of people’s work habits. The aim was to make production smoother and more predictable, and to elevate a new class of scientific managers above every operation.

The typical tableau that exemplifies Taylorism is the man timing bricklayers to raise the number of bricks laid an hour, and Taylorism is often blamed for the dehumanization of labor, turning human beings into cogs of a larger machine. What the association with repetitious, even dehumanizing, work belies, is something that video games have always known: It's an unquantifiable amount of fun to quantify your fun.

Saval picks up on this though, as did the Taylor disciple W.H. Leffingwell, who seemed to see how timing leads both to more fun and efficiency. “One manager who has had considerable success in introducing the use of the stop watch in his office, casually remarks to his subject: ‘I wonder how long it takes you to do that job?’ After two or three employees have been timed and nothing has happened, the rest of the office force is usually not only willing but anxious to be ‘time studied.’”

So I'm ready to Grush, if for no other reason than my brushing technique hasn't improved in two decades, although as an adult, I probably shouldn't need to be incentivised like a child to do something healthy for myself. I certainly don't want to be haggered about my posture by my electronics, but I'm ready for more fun.

On the other hand, life is what happens as you slowly empty toothpaste tubes, and a game is little more than a series of obstacles for delaying arbitrary accomplishments, in order to pass the time between brushings more pleasantly. You may as well enjoy the brushings too, right?

The real question is how you make flossing less horrible.