By Katharina Norden, MA and Doris C. Rusch, PhD
Personal finance has a lot in common with riding a bike. Think back, how did you learn how to ride a bike? In my case, somebody told me what to do and how to move. However, that wasn’t enough to really learn how to bike. I had to try, fall, stand up again, practice and eventually, I was able to hold the balance and biking became intuitive.
Learning how to deal with money works the same way. It actually doesn’t make much of a difference to know abstract concepts, like what is a bank account and how to calculate interest. In order to learn how to manage personal finance well, we have to try out, struggle, practice, in order to eventually keep our accounts balanced. Only, this crucial element of financial education is often overlooked or not enabled in an effective way. If we want to teach smart financial behavior, there has to be a safe environment, in which young people can test their financial skills – and that does not mean to test their ability to explain how a credit card works. It means to enable them to experience how financially responsible behavior feels. To bridge the gap between savings and habit formation.
This is where my project “Kicked Out!” comes in. Last year, I realized what a pressing challenge financial illiteracy has become, especially concerning the young. In my native Austria, a well-off Central European country, the average 25 year-old is indebted. Every fifth client of debt advice services is under 25 with an average of 30.000 Euros (45.000 Dollars) in debt. Likewise, in the US, a study by Sallie Mae revealed that the average student now has at least four credit cards and will graduate with $4,100 in credit card debt. Only 17 percent of students say they regularly pay off all cards each month. (Source: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/author/wsealy/)
This points to a dilemma in financial education. As argued by the New America Foundation in June 2011, common approaches to teaching financial capability “understate the role of psychological barriers to establishing sound financial behaviors”. In my opinion this holds true, because of two dynamics : 1) There is a significant imbalance between the ease of spending money and the challenge of saving money. Our system very much encourages to spend and to invest, whereas incentives to save are not easily accessible. Psychologically this makes spending become intuitive, while saving remains a locked chest. 2) In the best case, financial education is deemed boring and dry, in the worst case it triggers feelings of inferiority and incapability. When it comes to learning about money, it often comes along with feeling overwhelmed. We like to quickly stick the head in the sand, when things get overwhelming. “Whatever. I’ll cope somehow… I’ll just spend whatever flows in, estimate about how much I will need and I’m going to be fine.”
Money management seems overwhelming, because there are so few safe environments that allow to actually try it out, get an overview over what common challenges there are out there, and to receive feedback at a point where personal debt is not yet an issue. (. . .)
Kicked Out! is an adventure game with social gaming elements for Facebook. So, you’ve been kicked out and you don’t live in a cute fantasy any longer, protected by your parents who pay for your parties and clean up after you. Quickly, you quickly find out that the world out there is not as easy-to-handle, as you thought. Much to the contrary, the world is in a state of trouble. However, you have to fend for yourself now in an environment that turns out “rough”. You find out that there is a crucial resource that controls the world. Your mission is to equip yourself with that resource and to never run out of it. In order to secure your life, you have to run errands, complete quests and fight challenges out in this world. And you have to make sure you never loose sight of your savings. What that means exactly… in Kicked Out! you can only succeed, if you learn to become one of the savviest, fastest, and smartest in handling the mysterious resource.
This leads directly to what makes this game truly different from many other educational games: it focuses on immersion in an intriguing story. It’s also metaphorical in nature. While focusing on financial literacy, the word “money” does not exist in the game’s universe. It all revolves around the very limited resource, which is needed to cover all your wants and needs including your health as well as your social status. Be smart, make the right friends, and the right deals. Explore this environment and become street-savvy. By handling all the challenges the gameworld throws at you, you’ll become an expert in handling the limited resource that will not only keep you alive, but might allow a life beyond your wildest dreams. Eventually, the resource might enable you to even shape your own game world – it’s an adventurous, exciting, and sometimes dangerous road until you achieve that status!
Due to the strong metaphorical ties between this ominous resource and what we know as “money” in our world, becoming an expert in managing this resource means becoming a financially literate person.
The game is co-developed by a young team of social entrepreneurs, game designers, psychologists, debt counselors, and youth. It is planned to launch in Spring 2013, given the final financial means for development will be covered within the next months. Its potential for effecting positive change in financial education is real, since it will be a highly scalable tool that aims to reach a maximum amount of teenagers via Facebook. Most importantly, the Kicked Out! concept will provide a safe learning environment that will bridge the gap between knowledge and behavior.
That’s exactly what we need, in order to make education about money management effective.
Katharina has been a passionate entrepreneur since age 13, when she launched her first venture. With a background in law, journalism, and organizational development, she found her passion in social entrepreneurship. Before founding Three Coins (www.threecoins.org), Katharina was actively involved in the set-up of Ashoka in Austria with a focus on youth entrepreneurship. Katharina’s idea for using social online gaming for training financial literacy skills was awarded Coca Cola’s “Ideas against Poverty” prize in 2011.
Doris C. Rusch is game designer, researcher, play aficionado and holds a position as assistant professor for game design at DePaul University in Chicago. Before that she did post doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT GAMBIT Game Lab) and University of Technology, Vienna. Rusch’s work is focused on games that model the “human experience” and often have a purpose beyond fun. Having completed studies in Literature, Philosophy, Comparative Media Studies and English at Vienna University, she received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and Interactive Systems in 2004.