Pay the Balance or the Sheep Gets Whacked!

While Grand Theft Auto offers the thrill of criminal hijinx and Angry Birds celebrates interspecies warfare, the video game Money Metropolis has a more modest, if equally outlandish, goal: Teaching children that "saving for a goal is a world of fun."

Sponsored by Visa, the online game lets you save for one of three goals -- I chose a party at the local zoo -- by playing games in which you rake leaves, babysit, mow lawns and alphabetize books at the local library. For me, the game successfully re-created the tedium of teenage jobs. So much so that it inspired a fit of adolescent pique at the creators of such a boring game: I headed to the game's clothing store to blow my savings on the most expensive thing I could find, a $60 virtual pair of shorts in safety orange.

It's not really fair to single out this game for criticism, because it's part of a proliferation of well-intentioned efforts to boost children's financial literacy. When the recession hit some five years ago "suddenly everyone was interested in this," says Ted Beck, chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education. There was a Marvel comic book , a Saturday-morning cartoon show and a group that organized in-person motivational financial pep talks by celebrities such as actor Wilmer Valderrama.

The enthusiasm for financial literacy has launched hundreds of nonprofit organizations, government committees and even for-profit companies, both in the U.S. and abroad. In New Zealand, nine- and 10-year-olds are being taught about compound interest with sheep analogies . "Every time you kill a lamb you kill the chance of it making more lambs," the children are told.

In the world of financial literacy "there is no barrier to entry," says Beck. If you decide you want to launch a financial education program "no one is going to tell you 'no' -- even if you're duplicating what 100 other programs are doing." Beck was a part of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability , an effort to coordinate financial literacy efforts that wound down this year.

Sometimes it looks as though creators of content for kids don't actually know any children. A website called "The Mint," sponsored by Northwestern Mutual, claims "Fun for Kids." Yet much of this fun is clearly content for adults re-purposed for kids, like a quiz that asks: "Do you want to set your own hours?" and "Are you bored with your current job?" The aforementioned comic book, also sponsored by Visa, features the Avengers giving Spider-Man detailed budget advice while they fight off bank robbers. It ends with a "Budget Blaster!" form in which children are expected to write down savings goals, monthly income and expenses -- there's even a line for "transportation."

On Spider-Man's next outing, maybe the X-Men can explain tax deductions for business expenses and the explosive perils of balloon mortgages.

An actual child may benefit from some of the content out there. The Council on Financial Capability's site has advice for six- to 10-year-old kids that seems appropriate: "It can be costly and dangerous to share information online." Also, "it's good to shop around and compare prices before you buy."

It's difficult to know if even these efforts really pay off long term (see Teaching Americans to Listen When Their Money Talks ). Beck's group, NEFE, has been urging financial literacy groups to more rigorously measure the effectiveness of their programs. The results of such studies can be discouraging, he says. A new study funded by NEFE evaluated 201 previous studies of financial education programs and found little to recommend the efforts. After 20 months or more, "even large interventions with many hours of instruction have negligible effects on behavior," the study concludes.

That doesn’t mean financial education video games are necessarily a bad idea. How many future world travelers were inspired by Carmen Sandiego, or history buffs by Oregon Trail or plumbers by the Mario Brothers? Okay, maybe not that last one. In any case, the lessons of a smart financial game might be useful even if they aren’t retained for long. Just make sure that the game really is fun.

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