Can gaming teach children about money management?

  • 16 June 2020
  • Blog | Blog

By Thom Kenrick, Head of Social Strategy and Programmes at NatWest

According to research[i], our attitudes towards money are formed by the time we are around 7 years old. While it takes many years to understand the full complexities of money, our core beliefs around earning, spending, saving and borrowing are established before we finish primary school.

How then do you try to imbue good money habits and attitudes, at such an early age? This is something NatWest has been looking at for nearly 30 years. We launched our MoneySense programme, providing free and impartial financial education, in 1994. Today MoneySense is used in almost half of UK schools: in 2019 alone more than 1 million young people received a lesson.

Creating fun, relevant content is key in engaging children. MoneySense is built around age-appropriate ‘money moments’, from their first pocket money, to party planning, to getting a mobile phone, and more.  Never has this been more important than today as we battle against competitors for our audience’s attention – namely social media, video on demand, and computer games.

Key to engagement is reaching audiences on the platforms they already use. This led us to take the decision to embark on a world first – to create a full-scale, production-quality, video game to teach children about money.

We knew we had to create a game good enough that children will naturally want to play it, so we partnered with renowned independent games developer, StormCloud. The brief was to forget we are bank, and instead create a game that would resonate with our target audience of 7-12 year olds.

We did have some stipulations – we wanted something non-violent, and we wanted to build lifelike money experiences into the game. We landed on “earning” coins for tasks, which could then be saved in a bank account and used to “buy things”. Not an unusual format for a game – in fact many use this type of earn/spend formula. We added extra elements including earning interest, paying tax, being able to take out loans, and even foreign exchange. The player’s “bank account” also requires faux facial recognition and players have to set up a PIN (the latter has been a particular source of entertainment for children, as they spot the parallel with their parent’s world and something they are not usually allowed to be involved in!)

Following months of development and testing, Island Saver was born.

It’s been an incredible project to work on (after all, we were creating and launching a video game, which is not something bankers usually get to try!) but we’ve also been mindful of the responsibility of taking this on. Gaming is a creative industry: players are very discerning and bad games (even free ones) get loudly rejected or completely ignored. A central consideration for us was showing the value of Island Saver beyond a video game. An expected (and justified) question we expected from colleagues, stakeholders, and customers was why spend money developing a game at all?

For us the rationale was always clear – we are the UK’s leading bank when it comes to improving financial capability and, unless we move with the times and keep updating how we engage our audience, we will lose their attention.  Island Saver also doesn’t stand alone – it’s an extension of our wider MoneySense programme, reinforcing many of the learning points already available through other materials.  To ensure the whole family can get involved, we worked with financial education charity Young Money (who also advised on the game) to develop a series of Island Saver activity sheets, which explore the money matters covered in the game. These give families the opportunity to discuss the missions they encounter – explaining how these subjects might affect them in the real world, whether that’s how tax works or why you don’t want to borrow from a loan shark.  (I was delighted when my 7 and 9 year olds discussed the merits of taxation over breakfast: quote “they take your money but at least they empty the bins”.)

Responsibility also extends to accessibility. The game is free to download and play on all mainstream consoles as well as PCs, and we are launching a mobile and tablet version this summer. This should mean that as many children as possible are able to play.

But the central question is, has the game been successful in engaging children to learn about money? Purely as a game, it has been hugely well received. It is rated 4.5/5 on the gaming platforms, and there were over half a million downloads in the first fortnight after release. Looking at the game as an educational tool, the feedback has been that it has been a positive conversation-starter with families around topics such as earning money, saving, tax and PIN codes – and not just with kids! What’s more, the immersive nature of gaming seems to mean that players are “experiencing” the learning points, rather than feeling like they are “getting a lesson”.

Only time will tell as to whether gamifying money lessons will lead to improved financial capability, but as a bank we have pioneered a new approach to tackling this issue. It’s just the start of our venture into gaming – we have further updates, expansion packs and announcements coming. Could it be that NatWest becomes a key publisher in the UK’s video gaming industry? Possibly not, but one thing is for sure: we will continue to innovate financial education for children and adults, as we have done for at least the last 26 years.

For more information about Island Saver visit: