August 27, 2012

Financial Literacy and Gaming: Match Made in Education Heaven?

Life can throw curveballs from anywhere and at any time. So why is it that most of the financial planning information and advice available in the marketplace seems to assume that life is linear?

“The information tends to be of the sort ‘If you do A plus B plus C, you will always get D,’ but that’s not how the world of money works,” says Vicki Brackens, president of World of Cheddar in Syracuse, N.Y., a financial education firm that focuses on the impact of games, game mechanics and “gamification” on learning. “What we really need are financial literacy models that take into account the fact that no decisions are linear. We need models that allow people to work through a system that looks very much like life itself.”

Brackens’ answer is The Cheddar Bowl in 3D (Cb3d), a computerized financial literacy game developed with the World of Cheddar and Syracuse University's School of Information Services. Highly stimulating, interactive and rife with randomness, the Cheddar Bowl is a proxy for life.

Brackens, who hosts the PBS Syracuse affiliate WCNY TV show Financial Fitness, says that allowing players to navigate their way through many different kinds of circumstances, both in the virtual and the real world, can and will impact their financial futures. “The mode of play is a safe place from which to try new things, which is why I think gaming is a better model to use for financial literacy,” Brackens says. “In an open-platform kind of game, you make certain decisions that will lead you to certain consequences, but if you make a mistake, you can go back and redo your move, and that’s how you learn.”

Cheddar Bowl, which is currently in the second phase of testing but will be ready for classroom use in about six months, is aimed at the 16- to 22-year-old age bracket, a demographic, Brackens says, that has many major decisions to make with respect to life—not least education, career, the ability to take on debt and so on. The game is set in a “randomized economy,” she says, with each player facing a series of random events to which they have to react, and with every decision they take affecting the next one.

“Let’s say a player rented an apartment but forgot to purchase insurance and now, there is a fire. The result: they’re broke. That’s a kind of situation that could happen in life and that they’d have to deal with,” she says.

The outcome will be different for every player, but the overall goal is the same: To play safe in the virtual world for a better financial future in the real one. “I look at this game as a touchstone for success,” Brackens says. “Sure, you may be able to read a bank statement and understand what a budget is, and that’s great. But the gaming approach can give people the ability to learn how to take that kind of information and apply it to multiple situations in life, to hopefully come out more informed and capable in the long run.”

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