Some of the lamest books for kids are designed to teach them financial responsibility. Their approach: With a spoonful of sugar--Hey, kids! Look at the pretty pictures! Listen to the rhymes!--you can make the medicine go down: Savings good! Debt bad! But kids (like adults) resist being preached to. And good intentions can make for lousy art, which is why you're not going to see The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food on any top-ten lists.
It's also why, when MTV invited me to preview an ostensibly fun online videogame designed to teach college students about financial responsibility, I was skeptical. Aside from my suspicions fueled by bad children's-finance literature, I doubted a videogame could teach someone of any age much if the groundwork hasn't been there in the household, or among peers, over the prior two decades.
Debt Ski, which debuted today at www.debtski.com, reminds me of a lot of the time-sucking games I see my younger son playing on such free sites such as Miniclip.com: a character moves from left to right in a side-scrolling landscape, picking up tokens hanging in mid-air along the way. In Debt Ski (think Jet Ski), it's a pig on a personal watercraft. Most of the tokens are money, which you, the player, want to maximize. The other tokens signify things you spend money on: Some are necessities, of which you have to pick up a certain number each round; others are wants, such as TVs and laptop computers, which give you happiness points if you "buy" them by picking them up. But these purchases will cost you (you pay at the end of each round by cash or credit card, with a $7,500 limit).
The object is to score as many points as possible, which you get by multiplying your net worth (cash minus debt) by your happiness points. Some caveats: If your debts outweigh your cash, those happiness points count against you. And if you don't spend enough on necessities each round, you automatically lose the game.
Since my above-mentioned 11-year-old son is closer to the target audience than me (and unlike me, is actually a competent gamer), I tore him away from the homework and forced him to test the game for me. Once I explained what the game was and what it was designed to teach, he warned me that it was probably going to be boring and he definitely wasn't going to learn anything from it. And yet, driven by the desire to get his name on the high-score list (and take a homework break), he gave it a shot.
He died a lot of early deaths, until I pointed out to him that he probably needed to spend money upgrading his Debt Ski's jumping and breaking ability--a strategy that's not immediately made clear to players. He finally completed the game--but didn't make the high-score list because he was in the red. And his capsule review? "This game is so addictive," he announced in the midst of playing.
But I was more impressed with something he said to himself while unaware that I was listening. "My debt, my debt, I'm paying off my debt," he was sing-songing as he collected tokens. Wow. Any game that can get an 11-year-old to say that has something going for it.