Can video games teach fiscal responsibility?

Chris Morris

By Chris Morris
Chris Morris regularly writes for national outlets including CNBC.com, Fortune and Variety.
Posted on Sep 14, 2022

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Detail the money lessons embedded in one of the more popular video games during the pandemic.

Point out the economic systems embedded in some long-running video game franchises.

Describe some of the challenges in connecting video game money lessons to real-world applications.
 
     

As stay-at-home orders kept us locked in our homes during the pandemic, millions of people picked up video game controllers to pass the time — and no game was more popular than Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

It helped pass the time, yes, and let us connect with friends. But what many people might not have realized was that it also taught players lessons on supply and demand, mortgages, and money management.

Set on a peaceful island, players can harvest food and create items, or fish, selling their goods to earn in-game currency, which is used to pay the mortgage on their island home (although it’s a zero-interest loan). Once that’s paid off, the currency can be used to purchase everything from furniture to expansions.

Investment lessons from turnips

But the real fiscal meat of the game is in its “stalk market,” where turnips are bought and sold for gains and losses.

While “stalk,” of course, brings “stocks” to mind, the turnip market is more akin to commodities. Players buy the roots on Sunday from a trader who visits their island and have to hold them in their limited inventory. From there, they have one week to sell them before the turnips go bad.

Turnip prices are nearly as volatile as cryptocurrency, though, so you’ll have to strike while the market is hot but not let greed and FOMO rule your decision-making.

“Positive financial socialization is the result of being exposed to financial concepts, exploring and understanding the consequences of poor financial decisions, and ultimately becoming financially well,” said Stephanie Mackara of Charleston Investment Advisors and author of Money Minded Families. “I believe today’s generation can benefit from video games that help introduce new concepts, create decision points, and provide the results of those decisions.”

Other lessons in Animal Crossing?

  • Saving Nook Miles (which let you travel between islands in-game) offers a valuable lesson on the importance of budgeting.
  • The in-game ATM enables you to deposit your extra currency and also pays interest on your savings, so you learn about the power of compounding.
  • Working hard on your daily tasks and chores lets you make progress. In other words: Work hard and save, and you’re more likely to meet your goals.

Animal Crossing was hardly the first game to incorporate an economic system. Franchises like The Simsor Civilization, or education games like Lemonade Stand, have often included elements that help players learn the importance of managing their resources.

Financial lessons by design

“There is a strong connection between the economic system we operate within and the economic systems embedded in game systems," said Dr. William R. Watson, professor of learning design and technology at Purdue University and technology director of the school's Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments, in an interview. "There is no reason to think there isn’t a strong opportunity to learn fiscal responsibility through games. But we can’t expect it to happen accidentally. Design is about intent, and if we are designing learning environments, that intent needs to be in the forefront, not just of the mind of the designer or teacher but also in the minds of the learners."

Modern major sports franchises also slip in some money lessons. In EA Sports’ FIFA series, for example, players can take control of a club as a manager, handling the budget and signing new players to expand the global reach. It’s a lesson on both finances and negotiating. The Madden franchise offers the same sort of gameplay but set in the NFL.

Some players, however, pick up personal finance tips without any prompting.

Alex Recker and his wife Marissa were looking for a way to better keep an eye on their budget. They tried a number of fiscal philosophies and tools, but weren't happy with any of them. But one night, as Recker played Civilization V and was examining his in-game finances, he had an epiphany. If he could break down the couple's financial status in a way as clear and concise as the game, it would be the breakthrough they were looking for.

Following the game's model, he built a spreadsheet (and later a web application) that showed his income and expenditures by days, weeks, and months. The result? He was able to see, on a daily basis, whether he had lost or saved money. And that, he says, allowed the couple to quickly see what spending changes had the biggest impact.

"Because the numbers were so straightforward, we were free to look at the data and form simple tests around it," he wrote in a blog post explaining the system. "If I thought taking the bus every day would help us save money, I could try it for a week and examine the results. ... Rather than needing to prove everything, I could focus on one behavior at a time and quickly see if these guesses were supported by one clear, obvious result."

Finances wrapped in fun

The biggest hurdle when it comes to teaching players about fiscal responsibility is that the game maker's focus is typically squarely on the fun factor. So, even if a game offers a financial lesson, it’s generally a secondary concern.

“I think game mechanics are terrific for education,” Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive Software, said in an interview. “I think it’s been proven over and over again that they are. I don’t doubt you could teach financial literacy with interactive materials. It isn’t what we focus on, of course. We focus on entertainment.”

Still, those lessons can spring to the forefront of a player's mind when they experience a similar real-world scenario.

"The opportunity to understand investment, supply and demand, opportunity cost, and many other financial concepts are there ― the key is getting players to attend to and reflect on them," said Watson. "That being said, there is a whole world of secondary content that is player generated around games on the internet. So, some players do really digest what games have to offer and share the knowledge they’ve gained, even if only presenting it in terms of success within the game. ... If they recognize a real-world problem as being representative of a gameplay problem they've encountered in the past, I certainly think it’s possible that they could call past in-game experiences to mind."

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.