How To Use Games For Financial Education

The human brain is programmed to detect patterns, but often perceives finances as too dense or tangled to sort. Because they seem incomprehensible, finances are labeled as boring, and positive financial decisions remain difficult to teach via traditional methods.

A girl studies on her computer while her family works on pottery
A girl studies on her computer while her family works on pottery. Photo by Mukesh Dewatwal.

In contrast, when our brain sees a pattern that’s actually digestible, it seizes the opportunity to learn, quickly starts to make connections between concepts, and paints the shapes of new knowledge through the growth of neurons. This whole process is exciting and empowering and fun. These are the experiences that change the way people behave and push them to keep learning more. Gamification, the process of integrating game-like actions into everyday tasks, builds on these patterns, and in this way, may play an important role in financial education.

MindBlown Labs is one company working to integrate game play into financial education. One of its games, Thrive ‘n’ Shine tasks players with guiding avatars forward through life and away from bankruptcy. The game requires an emotional investment which lays the crucial foundation required to tackle financial systems and patterns. Players become more engaged as they successfully move through the game and start learning financial systems that previously seemed daunting. Thrive ‘n’ Shine makes financial systems discernable by embedding them in the context of play.

Thrive ‘n’ Shine offers rich, targeted feedback: when a player decides how much to deposit into savings, the game provides the player with earned interest almost immediately. When the player misses meals, their avatar becomes hungry and sad. Additionally, in the context of play, financial decisions are stripped of the stress that accompanies them in life; consequences offer opportunities to learn more about systems, rather than terrifying realities. The game is continuously coaching the player, allowing players to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn more.

In Thrive ‘n’ Shine, the authority to choose how much to work, the power to create a unique avatar, the ability to pursue different goals, and the freedom to try different types of financial services all convey a sense of autonomy. The interactive environment of the game also allows players to encounter new layers of complexity as the player becomes capable of handling them, by presenting challenges in the form of “quests” that unlock as previous quests are completed. This quest system allows players to feel a consistent sense of progress toward new challenges and marks mastery over previous concepts. Finally, Thrive ‘n’ Shine’s clear long term goals serve as a sort of lighthouse to guide players forward, and as a reason to develop and practice positive financial behaviors. Saving money becomes a more compelling activity when it’s a stepping stone toward owning a car.

We have learned several lessons about gamification and financial education from Thrive ‘n’ Shine. For example, introducing too many concepts can cause confusion. Similarly, offering concurrent goals and quests can distract players. Finally, we learned that introducing new financial concepts linearly and predictably better aligns with teachers’ classroom efforts and can enable teachers to better track their students’ progress. As we place the game into the hands of young people in schools, we watch closely to pinpoint elements in the game that may not be educating or engaging as intended.

When we create this sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in the context of play, we as game developers create an experience that turns obscure systems into discernible patterns. The brain is given a feast of digestible knowledge, and learning becomes exciting and immediately relevant to real-world behavior. “I always used to take money from my savings, and I didn’t know that was a bad idea,” one teen said. “Playing Thrive ‘n’ Shine has helped me. Now I put all my money into savings.” When we foster this type of reflection around finances, we gain the foundation we need to strengthen the relationship between financial service providers and their customers and communities. Financial literacy is essential to creating more sustainable and economically empowered communities.

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