Learning to Play the Game of Life: How Games Can Help Address Low Financial Literacy and Boost Engagement

blankIn the game of life, cashing out on a successful retirement is dependent on having the knowledge, skills and confidence to set and manage financial goals. However, low levels of financial literacy among retirement savers remains a major pain point within the industry. To address this, recordkeepers employ a number of strategies, such as bolstering educational resources, expanding contextual and supplementary help resources, and providing targeted content to boost literacy. The best path to sizable savings is to start early, but financial aptitude among college and high school aged students is shockingly low. According to CI’s 2023 survey measuring financial literacy, only 37% of high school students and 39% of college aged students answered more than half the aptitude questions correctly on a sample assessment. Respondents were asked a variety of questions, such as the definition of terms like “compound interest” and to demonstrate their understanding of what factors can impact their credit score. While firms can offer resources within the participant site to better support savers, engagement is hindered by a confidence threshold: participants with low literacy often exhibit low confidence, and therefore limited site engagement. One solution would be to find a way to engage participants beyond the participant site—but how? A handful of firms have an innovative answer: financial literacy games.  

Financial literacy games offer opportunities for education at all ages

While site resources can offer a spot-treatment to address immediate concerns, educational initiatives can build a long-term solution to financial literacy. Financial literacy games offer a creative, user-friendly method to teach children and adults about personal finance and investing.  

Fidelity’s Pancake Empire Tower Tycoon is a strong example of how firms can tap into a large audience base to promote core financial concepts like saving, budgeting and investing. In the game, players are tasked with building their own pancake empire by completing activities to earn YumYums, the in-game currency, that can then be fed to mystical creatures in order to convert them to dollar currency. Players learn the basics of investing and risk strategy by identifying what creatures will provide them a return investment and help them build their breakfast empire. Pancake Empire’s game’s bright, whimsical design and amusing breakfast theme that will attract younger players—and like a Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar—illustrate concepts while maintaining player engagement. Moreover, by releasing the game on Roblox, a widely popular mass multiplayer game, Fidelity is able to tap into a large, potential audience of players.  

Fidelity’s Pancake Empire Tower Tycoon Gameplay

By comparison, the Urban Ministries of Durham takes a markedly different approach in the game SPENT by leveraging true to life messaging and design to underscore the danger of an unexpected financial crisis for adult players. Urban Ministries of Durham is a non-profit based in North Carolina that runs a shelter, food pantry and outreach programs dedicated to helping individuals who are homeless. SPENT is less a game than a challenge, asking players at the out-set, “Urban Ministries of Durham services over 6,000 people every year – But you’d never need help, right?” The game provokes players to prove that they can navigate a financial crisis and avoid losing their home, with the aim to subvert players’ preconceptions about financial stability. Over the course of thirty in-game days, players engage in a life simulation, balancing their debt and income while navigating unexpected events. At times, the game’s morality system grows grim, allowing players to steal from their child’s piggybank to earn a measly sum of sixteen dollars if they need extra in-game funds in a pinch.  

Urban Ministries of Durham SPENT Game Dashboard

Gamification can further incentivize engagement

Across the broader financial services landscape—including retirement, financial wellness, and personal finance management—firms leverage gamification elements to engage users. Financial wellness providers like Enrich offer weekly and monthly streaks to encourage consecutive logins, while LifeCents and Lincoln Financial’s WellnessPath employ a point-based reward system to incentivize participant engagement with site resources and activities. However, gamification can sometimes fall flat when firms overlook two vital aspects: tangible rewards and fun.  

Moneyworld’s mobile app presents a model example of how to blend practical personal finance management with the enjoyment of a true game. The Moneyworld app acts a virtual piggybank: players complete activities to build a four-week saving streak that can then be converted into real cash deposited into their account. By setting up weekly deposits into their Moneyworld savings account, players can earn in-game currency and real interest on their account. To help players build a login streak, Moneyworld offers a variety of ways to earn coins, including watering a Savings Tree, competing in live trivia events, and encountering a series of predictable and random activities. While Moneyworld does not offer a roster of educational resources, the game does introduce players to the concept of earning interest on their savings and helps them learn how to build important savings habits.  

Moneyworld Mobile App

Life simulation games blend real-world lessons with financial literacy education

Sometimes, the best way to learn is simply by doing—and that’s the approach Bank of America adopts with its life simulation game, the Financial Literacy Challenge, powered by Stock-Trak. The game is part of the firm’s educational outreach program to foster financial literacy skills in students across the country. Eligible schools can participate in regional contests that offer prizes based on student participation. In the Financial Literacy Challenge, each player takes on the role of a college-student with a part-time job and they must learn to balance their expenses with long and short-term savings goals. Throughout the game, players learn how to exercise reasonable judgement by choosing their first apartment, setting up an internet plan and even deciding how to spend their weekends. Hanging out friends might offer a boost to the player’s happiness—or Quality of Life—score, while staying home to study might offer a surprise reward down the line. The game also offers a robust suite of educational resources for players and presents in-game lessons, like learning to write a check, that guide players as they build practical skills. There’s fun to be had, too: players can decorate a digital apartment, using their in-game funds to purchase items that can further improve the Quality of Life score. By placing students in the role of a young adult in college, the Financial Literacy Challenge helps young players prepare for milestones many of them will experience: attending college, starting a job, cashing a paycheck or moving into their first apartment. 

Bank of America Financial Literacy Challenge Sample Question

Financial literacy games are a notable example of how firms can look outside the box to invest in both their current and future participants. Raising financial literacy and awareness can inspire engagement and financial confidence. Beyond games, several firms within the industry are already experimenting with unique campaigns and offerings to bolster participant support: TIAA launched the “Paper Right” hip-hop track to target young savers; Voya recently introduced the MoneyIQ initiative on its public Financial Literacy Knowledge Center that positions education as a way to build practical personal finance skills; and New York Life partnered with the MLB as part of a financial literacy campaign targeted at young fans. As firms embrace a holistic approach to financial wellness, they can—and should—consider adopting a holistic approach to participant support by building initiatives for savers at multiple life stages. Beyond retirement, gamification and financial literacy initiatives have the potential to be applied across multiple industries. Financially savvy consumers may be more likely to responsibly use credit, invest their money and take a more direct role in the management of their finances.  

Clients subscribed to the CI Workplace Finance Monitor can find the full Financial Literacy Games report here.