Just like with fitness and dieting, personal finance is one of those unsexy topics that often gets overlooked by people in their daily lives. What can we do to bring some energy and life into personal finance? How can we encourage people can actively manage their wealth and build it up instead of letting growing debts and expenses continue to erode any chance of financial freedom? Gamification might be the answer.

A quick look online tells me that finance games are still in an elementary state. We’ve got Countdown to Retirement which allows you to choose one out of five careers and play year-by-year until age 65, choosing how much debt you want to pay off each year. Every year, you have simplistic events such as new business opportunities, pay raises, or emergencies, often chock-full of good humor. The Game of Life is a similar board game, where you get to choose whether to go to university and start a random career such as doctor, lawyer or businessperson, chock-full of good-humored random events that happen along the way.

As a child I used to come across business games like tycoons, Restaurant City, and Pet Hotel, where money was a main focus. We also have Recittear, a fan favorite where you play as a girl running a store to pay off her missing father’s debt. In Recittear, you get to haggle with customers, fight monsters in dungeons to get sellable items that fetch high prices, and set up your shop in a way that will attract more people to come.

When I think about it, most of the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games I played, such as MapleStory, Lunia and Grand Fantasia, had a currency system where I wasn’t necessarily motivated by the money, but what I could get with it: new skills, new equipment, rare items that take me to new places where I could feel bigger and stronger. When I played Neopets, on the other hand, I was motivated to get more and more Neopoints, the in-game currency. Being able to earn 600+ Neopoints after playing a Neopets minigame was very satisfying, and I would look up cheat codes that gave me special bonuses / skills in those games. I think that in Neopets, I was motivated by the feeling of mastery.

Now, what would take financial games, and games with built-in currency systems, to the next level? Ideally, a financial game should be able to

  • Build a gamer’s self-confidence and sense of control over making and using money to do what they find most fulfilling in life
  • Simulate real-life situations, including real economics, challenges and dilemmas that are not solved by pure luck alone
  • Learn the most effective financial strategies that currently exist, and develop the habit of applying them again and again
  • Allow gamers to explore both conventional and unconventional ways of making money and staying on budget – in a safe environment where they are free to make mistakes

Of course, those points I listed above are not exhaustive and I encourage you to comment with more!

How can we create games that emulate the above qualities? First, we can incorporate the psychology of building good habits. For instance, in real life it can be difficult for someone to review their financial progress every week, if other responsibilities and commitments take priority. Peer pressure can also distract someone from their dreams, and push him or her to buy a house, car and become a slave to a crazy amount of expenses. Including game stats such as slow-growing, limited willpower can put a game a lot closer to reality, and set up a player’s expectations for dealing with real life.

Another way to make games more realistic is to make them more challenging: for example, decrease the income to expense ratio, and have expenses increase with income by default – requiring willpower to reduce expenses back to a minimum level. Most of the games I mentioned above are too easy to be realistic. We can reduce guidance or game instructions to a minimum, and push the player to explore to the world around them and find their own way of creating wealth. For instance, the player’s one goal might be to fly a spaceship to the moon, and figure out how to get there from where they are.

Even getting started with managing money can be a challenge. In games, our net worth, expenses and income levels are readily given to us. However, in real life, we have to prepare a net worth statement and income statement on our own. (I am guilty of wanting to prepare a net worth statement for the last eight weeks and never doing it.) What if we build a number-gathering process into the game? You would be making phone calls and checking different web sources to gather the information.

To make the finance game not only realistic but fun, the game can be set up in such a way so that you achieve team goals and build relationships with other characters on your merry way to financial freedom – sort of like with Fire Emblem! I honestly stuck with all the gruelling rock/paper/scissors/chess games, chapter after chapter, because at the end of each chapter, every duo who fights together has a conversation that deepens their relationship (often full of humour; and yes, there is matchmaking in the game…). We can also include multiple chapters into the game so that it is not a 5-min blowout but rather a sustained effort over 20+ hours, covering topics such as risk management, retirement, financial goal-setting and more.

As CFM students, we have a financial mindset and the programming skills to create any kinds of games we want. We can make a huge ripple in the way finance is perceived, and transform it from a pain in the ass into a vehicle for personal freedom!