Every few days, my 8-year-old son, Neal, asks if he can “earn something” on Roblox
a popular online videogame 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 if 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 answer with an emphatic “yes.” Mark Mazzu is a former banker and stockbroker who teaches at the online educational platform Outschool. He uses Minecraft, another popular videogame, to help kids learn about economics. “You see them trade naturally; they get that. Negotiating, trading, buying, selling — it’s fantastic,” he says.
But financial literacy experts also say that whether kids really pick up money lessons through videogames depends largely on how parents talk with them about their online experience. Here are four conversations to have to help your videogame-loving kids develop real money skills.
How to build a financial safety net
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. ‘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.
Also see: People are still playing a lot of videogames, but how much?
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,” he adds.
The rewards and challenges of being an entrepreneur
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, where 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 their 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.
The value of money
Susan Beacham, CEO and founder of Money Savvy Generation, a financial education company, warns that videogames often emphasize superficial purchases, like virtual decorations or dressing an avatar. However, she says that they can also offer parents a way to broach the uncomfortable topic of money with their kids.
Related: High schools are finally teaching kids what they need to know about finances
Parents 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. You have to create scarcity and make them face a choice. When they spend their own money, it’s different,” she says. Then, she suggests following up afterward and asking if they think the cost was worth the benefit. “Now you’re teaching your child about money and value.”
How to budget and make trade-offs
Jeff Haynes, senior editor of web and videogames at 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 to another. “Whether you’re asking for it for a present or saving up for a title you want, there is an allocation of funds and negotiation with your parents,” he says.
Many popular games involve virtual stores, merchants and a set amount of funds to buy things like a crown or skin for your avatar. Players have to consider how to earn enough coins to acquire items they want, Haynes says.
Haynes suggests parents drive home those budgeting trade-offs by asking questions: “Why is this something you want for this game over something else? How are you going to save up to get it?”
Read next: 3 ways parents can save for their child’s future
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. In addition to having him earn the Robux through chores or extra homework, I ask him to explain to me what he’s getting out of the purchase and why it’s worth the cost.
For his part, he told me he 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.”
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Kimberly Palmer writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kimberlypalmer.