PlayMoolah: Gamifying financial systems for children

Although the recent elections in Greece have provided some welcome relief, the Eurozone continues to fight fires throughout the region as borrowing costs rise in Spain and Italy. With the potential for another global financial crisis (GFC) looming on the horizon there’s a strong sense of déjà vu, echoing the financial mismanagement woes of 2008.

It was at that time that Singaporean Min Xuan Lee was studying in the US. With first hand experience of how the GFC mark one affected every day people, Lee at that time asked a very important question: what were the roots of financial illiteracy? Acknowledging that even adults could be uninformed about their own money management, Lee along with co-founder Audrey Tan decided to focus on children. “Our whole team has a great love for kids,” says Lee. “That’s why we wanted to start with kids to nip the problem in the bud. If adults themselves are clueless, what is happening to their kids?”

This approach is the core underpinning behind PlayMoolah, a subscription-based online platform designed to teach children about financial literacy in a fun and effective way. Recently transitioning from beta, the site has registered users from around the world and has been recognised by the startup community for it’s innovation, winning Echelon 2011 and Innotribe 2012 as well as obtaining funding from investors in Sillicon Valley and in Asia. PlayMoolah has also just released Coin Catcher, a fun app for the iPad designed specifically for younger users.

PlayMoolah introduces children to financial concepts through a virtual world with game elements. However, the founders did not initially set out to create a game. Instead their journey started with exploring what interested and engaged children. Lee says, “We started from a background of behavioural technology, persuasive technology. We didn’t set out to make a game from day one. We saw a problem and asked, ‘what’s happening in that space’? So we looked at kids’ games and what they were exposed to at different ages…. Club Penguin. Webkins. That was what kid’s were playing.”

With complementary experiences (Lee’s background is in business and finance while Tan studied new media, games and education) the founders have undertaken hundreds of interviews to inform the design and development of the platform, speaking to educators, parents, teachers, financial experts, behavioural economists, bankers and of course the end users: children. A typical day for Lee has a very wide spectrum starting at 7.30 in the morning sitting down with kindergartners through to meeting bankers in the afternoon.

Screenshot from PlayMoolah.

Screenshot from PlayMoolah.

Although the design started with real-world behavioral tools, the founders soon added a game layer because they learned that “It was the best way and known way for kids to understand and engage in the financial concepts, and then discover the real-world layer to extend their knowledge into practice. There’s a real learning process as the child journeys from what they already know to the unknown.”  PlayMoolah allows children to create an avatar, explore the Dreamverse, learn about careers, complete games with learning activities and earn a virtual currency called Moops. Parents have an option to be closely involved, where they can monitor and track their child’s learning journey. But behind the super cute graphics and NPCs (non-playing characters) is a fundamental philosophy regarding money. “Money should serve you and your personal goals, and create even more wealth,” says Lee. “We hope more people would be empowered to take control of their money and not be a slave to it.”

Game testing using paper prototypes. (Image courtesy of PlayMoolah)

However, during development the founders realized that the game structure could also serve as a vehicle for encouraging positive real world action. “It’s not really about curriculum or knowledge or vocabulary like interest, inflation, or savings and what they mean. We can cultivate real habitual change or nurture behavioural results… [We asked] Could we take the virtual world and turn it around and actually reward kids for good behaviour like delayed gratification, actually saving money or investing money and not just consuming? So we created a system for that… our curriculum is focused on action!”

PlayMoolah features a strong emphasis on what children can actually do with their money: earn, spend, save, invest or give. It’s a radical approach: focus on the role of money in society and the actions that one can take rather than accumulating wealth for its own sake. But its something the founders believe is crucial for children to learn. “It’s not ‘Here’s lessons one to ten of how money works in society’ but rather what you can do with money. We want the child to think, in what way shall I use it towards my end goal which is my happiness or personal growth.” Consequently PlayMoolah helps children to manage their real world allowance, set personal financial goals (like buying a book or music) and concrete actions (save $3 a week).

The founders of PlayMoolah with some keen testers. (Image courtesy of PlayMoolah)

The team also believes in sharing that wealth with those less fortunate. Under the “give” component of the game, children can donate their money, time or talent to charitable organisations with whom the company has established partnerships. PlayMoolah also provides free subscriptions to families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the business keeps the team extremely busy, Lee hopes that PlayMoolah could one day grow into something that also assists children and families in developing countries.

PlayMoolah has received positive feedback from not only parents but also financial intuitions around the world. As the company looks toward the future they recognise the growing importance and demand for mobile access, and are moving towards a multi-platform approach with web as the central platform. The team anticipates that what children learn today can have a real and tangible impact on their ability to create and manage wealth in a way that helps them to achieve their life goals. Lee also hopes that “Kids will inspire their parents. We really hope that this new generation of kids will think of money differently.”

Perhaps parents will begin to realise that not all games are the same and that some have the potential to create a positive impact on the lives of their children with benefits that reach far into the future, starting with some small change.

Natalie is co-founder of Hummingbird Interactive, a Singapore-based gamification and motivational design consultancy. She blogs at www.recognitionpattern.com

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