Can video games help people save money?
SavingsQuest, an applied research project bringing together the University of Arizona and the Doorways to Dreams, or D2D, Fund under a Center for Financial Services Innovation grant, will test the theory in hopes of finding a mix of game features that will entice smart savings behavior.
"Financial education only goes so far. You need to have some experience with actual products to understand how the market works and have financial capability," said Michael Staten, director of the Take Charge America Institute for Consumer Financial Education and Research and professor in the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"That's the real objective of financial education programs – to get consumers comfortable and capable with sorting through complex options to reach a financial decision that's best for them."
Staten's role in the project will be to design the research and evaluation plan and and compare behavior with a control group. D2D's work over the past six years has demonstrated that a frame of fun and use of games can attract low-to-moderate income consumers and prompt positive financial action.
"Most people know they ought to be saving, but never actually get around to starting. This is the first step, and once you get access to that, the bigger steps are easier to take," Staten said. "It's a stealth education concept to reward positive behavior that people would otherwise have to overcome inertia to start."
SavingsQuest will piggyback on a financial service that's becoming increasingly common: paychecks issued as pre-paid debit cards, which allow workers without a bank access to many of the same services. About 80 percent of cardholders have income less than $60,000, and most don't have good saving habits, Staten said.
The idea is to build a game on top of the platform that will encourage savings, testing different features, elements and combinations to determine which are more effective at increasing savings participation.
"It's very much the way innovations in financial services are going these days," Staten said. "They're trying to find ways that will work to engage customers and give them a fun repeat experience, but along the way they can build up an emergency savings balance."
Elements of game play designed to encourage savings will likely be some mix of pop-up options, creating goals, back-and-forth competition, social networking and more challenging levels. Staten and the game designers don't aim to create just a single game at the end of the study, but instead an understanding of what type of game features are most effective at encouraging people to save.
"Maybe it turns out to be a social commitment feature that makes the most difference. Maybe it's the way they do pop-ups mid-game to make a real-time savings decision. The point is to figure out the right cocktail of features," Staten said.
D2D will spend about eight months designing a game and features, with a rollout anticipated by the winter. Staten then will collect and evaluate data over the next year, with the Take Charge Institute donating its services to further its mission of supporting financial education.
"Having a rainy day fund isn't that exciting, but the hopefully game injects a little more motivation into it," Staten said. "The question in the end becomes is this scalable?"