What video games can teach you about personal finance

What video games can teach you about personal finance

Back in a simpler time, the television was the most vilified screen in the home because, well, it was the only screen in the home. Today, when everyone has a screen in their pocket (not to mention on their walls, wrists, desktops, and refrigerators), that old anxiety over vapid daytime talk shows and violent cartoons has morphed into something larger and more pervasive: the fear that we are in the midst of a collective screen time overdose.

A large part of this exposure is through video games. I am always surprised by their popularity; last year it was reported that two-thirds of Americans play video games on at least one device, and that’s just among grown-ups. Of course, the downside of these digital worlds—from kids spending their parents’ money on in-game baubles to the fact that they can be big ol’ virtual time sucks—has been well documented. Still, devoted gamers argue that the process of problem-solving, creating, and collaborating with fellow players has major upsides. And there’s even some research that backs them up: Several studies have found that playing video games can sharpen cognitive abilities, increase brain plasticity, and promote our capacity for strategic thinking.

Here’s a rundown of some popular game franchises that offer some financial lessons.

Animal Crossing

This mega-popular video game series has fans that span all generations, since it simulates daily life in a village where your neighbors are dogs, cats, anteaters, birds, mice, and more.

Financial takeaways: In spite of the storybook setting, the backbone of Animal Crossing is real-life social and financial negotiation. You start by taking out a home mortgage from a tanuki (the famous Japanese raccoon dog) and continue to pay off and accumulate debt throughout the game as you expand your in-universe house and belongings. There are opportunities to sell and trade items with your neighbors, donate to local institutions, and even invest in the “stalk market” tied to the value of turnips (yes, turnips).


With a new release every season since 1999, this series gives pro basketball fans the chance to experience the game on and off the court. Multiple modes provide the option of playing through a season of games with your favorite team, tracking the career of a custom-built character, or taking over as a team’s general manager, in MyGM mode.

Financial takeaways: In NBA2K’s MyGM mode, you’re the person pulling all the financial strings of a franchise. Sticking to a budget set by the team’s owner, you set front-office and player payroll (using the league’s salary cap as a guide) and simulate tough contract negotiations and sponsorship deals. It’s fun for sports enthusiasts; plus, it could give you an edge the next time you’re haggling at the auto dealership.

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Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe

This video game puts you at the helm of a business empire over the course of a century. Starting off as a railroad baron, your goal is to expand your freight and passenger transport fleet across the continent, negotiating with the agricultural, industrial, and energy sectors as you build your infrastructure and invest in new technology.

Financial takeaways: What if you could control the growth and expansion of an entire sector of the economy? That’s the thinking behind this one. Contending with challenges ranging from equipment breakdowns to recessions—all while trying to stay solvent—can be a hoot. And at the end of the day, it’s about managing a budget, investments, and financial risk, skills that could arguably help you on the smaller scale of your own personal finances.

Stardew Valley

This one recreates agrarian life in pixel form. Using funds raised from foraging, your farmer evolves from sowing a field to overseeing acres and acres of crops, including summer wheat and fall pumpkins. Up the entrepreneurial stakes by investing in new equipment to make products to take to market, such as honey, cheese, and wine.

Financial takeaways: Planting a seed, waiting for it to grow, timing the harvest right…there’s a metaphor here. Farming is the original investing, and by immersing you in the season-by-season progress of your crops, you get a prime lesson in delayed gratification. Plus, with so many plants and animals available to cultivate—and a huge range of products you can create from them—the game encourages you to diversify your investments and income streams.

Space…the financial frontier

The larger a video game universe gets, and the more players it can accommodate, and the closer it comes to depicting the sharing, trading, and negotiating that occur in real life. The “open world” gameplay of No Man’s Sky, Elite Dangerous, and Kerbal Space Program, to cite three popular space-faring games, allows you to collaborate on goal-setting and accumulating resources as you build ships and travel to distant planets.

Financial takeaways: Not unlike your real career, these games reward the grind of long hours and hard work—No Man’s Sky and Elite Dangerous in particular don’t let you skip to the fun parts of interstellar exploration. For every space battle and discovery of an alien species, you’ll log a lot of time mining uranium ore or watching the stars zip by on those faster-than-the-speed-of-light jumps. Kerbal Space Program rewards your perseverance, as you trial-and-error your way through engineering rockets, space shuttles, orbital stations, and planetary landing modules (and develop a working knowledge of orbital mechanics). Apparently, this game is even a hit with engineers at NASA.

Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.

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