Can't get your kids to quit playing video games? Good news: Depending on what they're playing, they might actually be learning to be smarter about money.
Granted, games like “Mario Kart” or “Doom” aren't going to do much to help increase anyone's financial IQ, but a number of popular titles incorporate economic principles into their gameplay, which not only adds to a game's immersive nature, but can impart a few lessons for younger players as well.
Whether it's titles that have incorporated economic systems, like “The Sims”or “Civilization”, or education games like Lemonade Stand, there's the potential for players to learn the importance of managing their resources. In many cases, though, it comes down to whether the game makers are looking to emphasize that system.
"There is a strong connection between the economic system we operate within and the economic systems embedded in game systems," says Dr. William R. Watson, associate professor of learning design 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." (Related: The value of a sound financial strategy)
Some players, however, pick up personal finance tips without any prompting. For instance, Alex Recker and his wife Melissa 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.
A “Civilization V” budget revelation
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 straight forward, 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."
Games can teach more than personal finance, too. “EVE Online” is a massively multiplayer online game (kind of like “World of Warcraft”) where players spend their time in a deep space setting mining and exploring planets, manufacturing and trading goods and (on occasion) pirating and fighting in battles.
The economy in “EVE Online” is a living thing. CCP, the game's developer, actually has an economist in-house who monitors the virtual world, working to curb inflation or introducing new types of technology to absorb currency. In real world terms, that economist and his team are a virtual Federal Reserve, selling bonds to shrink the money supply.
As of late April last year, the real world value of the game's economy, noted Himar Petursson, CEO of publisher CCP, at an industry convention, is $55 million.
And some players study that economy and use it as a testing ground for real world speculation.
"It has been an interesting experiment," said John Purcell, an avid player of the game and creator of Prosper Market Analysis, a de facto financial journalism site focused on “EVE Online,” in an interview. "Since ‘EVE’ has a very complicated economy ... it gives a way to mess with economic principles and ideas in a way that doesn't cost me $10,000 per month in fees. I can analyze some results and test them without ... losing my shirt and telling my wife I've lost our money. Here, I can buy in-game currency for $100. And whether that sinks or swims, I'm only out $100."
The biggest hurdle when it comes to teaching players about fiscal responsibility is the game's focus is squarely on entertainment, so many players may choose not to pay attention to any financial lessons. But 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."
Specific financial games
There are, of course, games that are designed specifically for helping people to learn about money management. Some, like the aforementioned “Lemonade Stand”, are meant for kids. Others, like “Financial Football”, help teach teens and adults financial terms and concepts. (Get an answer right and your team gains yards – or, if you're on defense, pushes your opponent back.)
And yes, even MassMutual is using games to help educate people. FutureJet, made for smartphones and tablets, promotes retirement savings as players fly through a city whose lights are flickering out due to dwindling energy supplies.
Video games might seem a bit of an odd way to boost your financial IQ. But ultimately, say experts, they can be terrific educational tools.
"I think animations are important," says Ray Martinez, co-founder and president of financial education at Everfi. "I think having a multi-sensory learning approach is important, so you can cater to different learning styles. Being able to build an avatar and take that avatar through different scenarios where you're helping them make decisions, but you understand the consequences when you make a bad decision — that's important and makes it relevant to that end user."
More from MassMutual…