02 Jun 2011
Serious Funby Julia HannaTopics:
The educational power of video games and simulations to teach everyone from fighter pilots to senior managers is well documented. Games, after all, are fun. Our competitive instinct kicks in, and before we know it we’ve lost an hour to launching “angry birds” to demolish fortifications built by green pigs. If the ultimate outcome of that frantic gaming also teaches us something (probably not the case with Angry Birds), our brain is likely too engaged in the task of winning to rebel against some higher purpose.
Nick Maynard (MBA/MPP ’02) harnesses that power as director of innovation at Doorway to Dreams (D2D), a Boston-based nonprofit founded in 2000 by HBS finance professor Peter Tufano, where one of Maynard’s many tasks involves leading the organization’s financial literacy video game initiative. Devoted to strengthening the financial opportunity and security of low- and moderate-income consumers, D2D develops and supports innovative new products and policies that make it easier for people to save.
Among its many initiatives, D2D offers individuals and organizations (private employers, the military, community colleges, nonprofits, government agencies) free access to video games that teach different aspects of financial literacy. Celebrity Calamity focuses on the ins and outs of credit card debt; Farm Blitz: teaches users about debt, savings, and compound interest; Bite Club, billed as “the world’s first-ever vampire retirement game,” puts each player in charge of a bar where they manage vampire customers in order to earn cash, pay off debt, and “save for their eternal retirement;” and in Refund Rush, gamers help clients decide how best to allocate their income tax refund.
I sampled Groove Nation, a completely engrossing game in which users guide aspiring dancer Angel Alvarez through a six-city tour, with the ultimate goal of finding fame and fortune in Los Angeles. Along the way, as Angel earns money dancing in competitions (and working a side job), users make decisions about budgeting for short- and long-term savings goals in addition to meeting regular (and unexpected) expenses and making investment decisions along the way about upgrades (such as lights and equipment) that will improve Angel’s performances (and pay).
The impact of the games to date is encouraging. In surveys of participants who played Farm Blitz and Bite Club, measures of self-confidence in financial skills improved by significant amounts, jumping as much as 50 to 60 percent. As an unexpected side benefit, Maynard notes that middle school and high school teachers are also using the games to teach students about different aspects of financial responsibility.
“We took a distributive innovation approach to developing these games,” he says, noting that representatives from academia and the private sector (including companies such as Zynga and Harmonix) serve an advisory role in creating the games. “We don’t assume that one game designer can come up with all the answers.
“We also broke down the product development process to engage the end user,” he continues. “They help shape the content so we can make sure it fits with their needs but also has an impact from a knowledge and self-confidence standpoint.” This year, Maynard expects the games to become available in Spanish-language versions and on mobile devices.
In addition to working with Tufano (soon-to-be dean of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford) on policy change that allows tax filers to direct some of their refunds to purchase inflation-indexed savings bonds, Maynard managed the pilot of prize-based saving in the credit union industry through a program known as Save to Win.
“I grew up in Missouri, the ‘Show Me State,’ so all of these projects tapped into my desire to get out and implement something tangible,” he explains. “What I love about this work is that it combines the two facets of why I went to HBS and the Harvard Kennedy School. I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurial enterprises and activities that can have an impact on people’s lives, especially the poor and working poor in the United States.”
Class of MBA 2002, Section D
Class of MBA 1984, Section I