Every few days, my 8-year-old son Neal asks whetherf he can “earn something” on Roblox, a popular online video game platform.
That’s his way of suggesting I buy him Robux, the platform’s currency, in exchange for him doing a chore or extra academic assignment.
While I usually decline these requests, his persistence made me wonder whether the games are teaching him some personal finance lessons, such as how to budget a scarce resource — Robux — and whether his practice in this virtual world could help him navigate the real one. Will he be less likely to squander actual dollars if he’s already practiced stretching his Robux budget?
Some experts say an emphatic “yes.”
Mark Mazzu, a former banker and stockbroker who teaches at the online educational platform Outschool, uses Minecraft, another popular video game, to help kids learn about economics.
“You see them trade naturally; they get that,” he says. “Negotiating, trading, buying, selling — it’s fantastic.”
But financial literacy experts also say that whether kids really pick up money lessons through video games depends largely on how parents talk with them about their online experience.
In his online classes, Mazzu raises the issue of how to keep money safe with his students.
“I ask them, ‘What does a bank do?’ and transition into a Minecraft discussion,” he says. “ ‘How do you keep your things safe inside of Minecraft?’ ”
In the game, players use chests, for example, which keeps valuable items safe — much like a bank account does.
That can lead to a discussion about saving money. Mazzu suggests framing it in a relatable way: “If you go and get 64 pieces of coal or cobblestone, you don’t want to use all of the stuff you find. You want to put it away. Why don’t you put 10% away in a chest and use the rest?” Mazzu says. “It’s a great way to teach kids how to save.”
Laura Vanderkam, author of “Off the Clock” and mother of five children under 15, says her kids picked up money lessons from the Roblox game Theme Park Tycoon, in which players build and run an amusement park.
“There are a lot of actual business allocation decisions that are not the sort of thing kids would get the chance to do in real life unless you’re running a serious lemonade stand,” Vanderkam says.
She says parents can drive home those lessons by asking kids about the games and drawing real-world parallels.
“People get obsessed with the negative aspects of screen time, but there are a lot of cool lessons to be learned,” Vanderkam says.
Susan Beacham, CEO and founder of Money Savvy Generation, a financial education company, says video games often emphasize superficial purchases, like virtual decorations or dressing an avatar. But parents also can bring up games’ shortcomings, such as currency that can only be spent, not invested, donated or saved in an interest-bearing account, for example.
“If you want them to learn a lesson, you have to talk with them about it,” she says.
Beacham also suggests having kids earn money or use their allowance to buy virtual currency for game-playing.
“Kids will take your money all day long,” she says. “You have to create scarcity and make them face a choice. When they spend their own money, it’s different.”
Then, she suggests following up afterward and asking whether they think the cost was worth the benefit: “Now, you’re teaching your child about money and value.”
Jeff Haynes , senior editor of web and video games for Common Sense Media , a nonprofit that promotes safe technology and media for children and families, says the money lessons can start even before the game is played. Kids have to consider how much games cost and why they prefer one game over another.
Haynes suggests that parents drive home the possible tradeoffs by asking, for instance, “Why is this something you want for this game over something else? How are you going to save to get it?”
Now, when Neal asks me for Robux, I think about how to make sure he truly earns that currency. I want him to internalize the idea that Robux, like real money, is a scarce resource and not something to take for granted. Beside having him earn the Robux through chores or extra homework, I ask him to explain what he’s getting out of the purchase and why it’s worth the cost.
He clearly thinks this strategy is working: “It teaches me not to use up too much Robux, and, in Tycoon games, I learned how to save up for really expensive things.”