Game on: Digital tools teach kids money lessons through play

Video games work well in financial education -- if done right


In the digital age, video games have joined pencils and calculators as tools for teaching kids to handle money. Not every game is a win for young minds, but when done right, games can help overcome the tedium of learning dry financial topics."

Learning financial skills is critical, and it comes in handy from an early age. For example, the average 2014 college graduate has $33,000 in debt, according to National Center for Education Statistics data crunched by, a group of websites focused on how to pay for college.

Game on: Digital tools teach kids money lessons through play

What better way to teach financial literacy than via a screen? "Any kid can look at a screen," says Nan Morrison, president and CEO of the Council for Economic Education, a national financial literacy organization.

Jump to the list: 7 free financial video games

In 2011, the council launched Gen i Revolution, a video game that sends kids on missions to stave off a rising "murktide" of financial woes. Chicago Public Schools will use the game and other tools beginning in the fall of 2014 as part of a curriculum that teaches financial know-how. Gen i Revolution already has taught 200,000 kids how to handle their money, Morrison says.

Morrison says games can teach if they don't sacrifice education at the altar of entertainment. Here, a few must-haves for financial education games:

Play games icon Standards and the ability to be tested. Morrison says video games can teach money skills effectively when they follow established education standards. They also need to be tested. "If you can't develop objectives and assess against them, what good is the game?" she asks.

Trained educators should be responsible for developing any kind of classroom game intended to teach financial education, Morrison adds. Such educators helped develop Gen i Revolution. Students who participate in the game have been tested, and the results support the effectiveness of the Gen i approach, she says. "That knowledge sticks."

Play games icon Blended topics. Potent financial education video games also have a curriculum that mixes up topics, experts say.

Practicing one skill until it is perfected before moving on to the next skill may seem logical but it is not the most effective way to learn, says Helen Roberts, director of the Center for Economic Education at University of Illinois at Chicago. "The better way is to mix it up," she says.

When a game challenges students with several skills at once, it "deepens learning," Roberts says. "Games that make a simple point over and over don't do that," she says.

One example: Gen i Revolution's credit mission involves the practical matter of how to pay down a bill, which requires math, budgeting skills and critical thinking, including learning criteria to make future decisions on whether to use credit. All of the game's 15 missions similarly mix and match skills, Roberts says.

Play games icon Teaches the right real-life skills. Even educators who are pro-game have their doubts about some of the games that have been developed. For example, The Stock Market Game -- developed and launched by New York-based SIFMA Foundation -- has received praise over the years for engaging students in learning about stock market fundamentals. But it raises concerns for Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The game is designed for both students and adults, and gives players a certain amount of money to invest. The issue? "Do we want to teach people to pick individual stocks, when all the research shows that people should invest in index funds?" Lusardi asks. "Let's be careful about the lessons we're teaching."

Plaly games icon Supplements traditional education. Good financial education video games should be used in addition to -- not instead of -- other forms of teaching, experts say.

Moneythink, a Chicago financial-literacy nonprofit, tutors in 44 high schools nationwide. The organization provides college students who teach high school students financial basics, such as how to save money, spend judiciously and pay for college.

In fall 2014, Moneythink will introduce an app to supplement the classroom-based tutoring. The app will include gaming techniques -- such as earning points and moving up levels -- but will not simulate real-life measures, such as spending or saving.

"Students actually need to perform specific financial behaviors in their lives," says Jennifer Shoop, chief innovation officer at Moneythink.

The app, she adds, is meant to boost engagement rather than substitute for classroom teaching and learning.

Analog or digital, financial-education games have to engage, entertain and teach, Morrison says. "Even kids say, 'Fun is great, but I need something [where] I'm actually learning.'"


Cyberspace contains loads of games designed to teach children how to handle money. Check out this list for a sampling of what's out there -- all at no cost. Click on the photo to enlarge.

The Fun Vault
Coins of the Deep DoughMain, a for-profit firm based in Princeton, New Jersey, offers this collection of games suitable for children aged 5 to 9. Kids learn to recognize, sort and count money and work on memory skills playing games such as Fishdom and Coins of the Deep.

Sand Dollar City
Sand Dollar CityAnother DoughMain game, this one's for 8- to 12-year-olds. The idea is to solve money mysteries to save a family-owned underwater candy store.

Video trailer for Sand Dollar City

Gen i Revolution
Gen i RevolutionCreated by the Council for Economic Education, this game puts high school kids through various missions that let them overcome the "murktide," an overwhelming wave of financial confusion and troubles. The game is designed for classroom use; individual kids can play on their own, too.
Video trailer for Gen i Revolution.

Celebrity Calamity
Celebrity CalamityD2D Fund, a Boston nonprofit, created this game. Older children help a financially challenged celebrity get jobs, shop  wisely and stay out of debt.
Video trailer for Celebrity Calamity.

Bite Club
Bite ClubIt's never too early to save for retirement, "even if you live forever." That's one concept taught by this D2D Fund game, which features a vampire-owned business called Bite Nightclub. Kids help the vampire pay down debt from the club and stay solvent.
Video trailer for Bite Club.

Thrive 'n' Shine
Thrive 'n' ShineMindblown Labs, an Oakland, California, education-technology firm, developed this app, which lets teens create a character, choose a career and then manage a lifetime's worth of finances. IPhone users can download it from the App store; Android users from the Google Play store.
Video trailer for Thrive 'n' Shine.

Financial Football
Financial FootballVisa and the National Football League teamed up on this game, which gives users tutorials in both finances and football. Players choose their team and an opponent, decide on plays during the game, and must answer financial questions before playing each down. The "Rookie" level is for ages 11 to 14, "Pro," for ages 14 to 18, and "Hall of Fame" for ages 18 and older.
Video trailer for Financial Football.

See related: Public schools get mixed grades on financial literacy, Lessons from abroad on financial education, Survey: Lack of education goes with credit card debt

Published: July 28, 2014

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