The art of the deal isn't something students usually study in elementary school, and neither are the principles of real estate, the rough and tumble rules of the stock market or best practices for starting a business.
However, there are games for kids that do exactly that. The best part? The learning is completely stealth. Kids just think it's fun.
When I was a young, wheelin' dealin' Monopoly shark, I would mercilessly charge opponents exorbitant rents with glee. Modern players still covet Park Place, but these days they are playing the Milton Bradley Monopoly Here and Now Electronic Banking Edition which offers an electronic bank and debit card as well as prices raised to reflect inflation.
The game maker describes the newest version as allowing players to "learn real-world economics, competition, and strategy." It's really the same-old classic with batteries and minus the messy paper dollars.
"It's so much more fun with the debit card, " said Darlene343, reviewing the game on About.com:shopping, "It has taught my children about ATM banking and how to manage money." On the same review page, Bgllvr711 wrote there are no weaknesses to the game, "unless you want the kids to work on counting."
Many of the coolest business-savvy games don't require stacks of multi-colored paper "money" or even a game board, just some nifty, reasonably-priced software.
Not exactly new, the "Tycoon" style of computer games introduced in the early 90s allow players to create online theme parks, restaurants, chocolate empires, resorts, zoos, schools and almost any other for-profit business. Rollercoaster Tycoon, now available in a variety of generations, is one of the most successful.
Players design rides at a theme park (using drag and drop-style formatting) and decide exactly how they want the park to be laid out. In addition, young tycoons must decide how much to charge, how many bathrooms to build, what kind of landscaping to choose, how many snack shacks to place, and how many employees to hire.
Every decision impacts profit -- and therefore whether a player is winning or losing. Not enough bathrooms or benches for resting and the virtual people start leaving the park -- concession sales plummet! If the rides are too scary or too boring, the peeps will not stand in line. Similarly, if it starts to rain, someone better start selling umbrellas quick.
During one game, my kids decided to raise the cost of entry to their park. They were surprised when attendance actually increased and the park became more successful. They discovered the idea that if something is priced too low, consumers might assume it's not worth their time.
Would-be Walt Disneys must also take out loans to fund their enterprise and are expected to pay them back. At the bottom of the screen, a running total shows how much money is being earned or lost on a real time basis. The player is in control of all aspects of management and decision making.
In a 2009 consumer review on Amazon.com, 12-year-old "C.Aldrich" writes, "The game (Rollercoaster Tycoon 2) is easy to understand...Anyone can play it. My 7-year old sister can play it non-stop with some help. I would give it 3 billion stars if I could." Under the "pros" section of the review, this preteen wrote, "I think schools should use it for math and economics." He also notes, "...it's hard to manage employees." Who needs B-school?
My 9-year-old is currently obsessed with Ski Resort Tycoon, and is constantly looking to improve the design of his ski runs, add warming huts and offer more amenities to increase business. He may not be aware that he is thinking in terms of profit and loss, concepts of business valuation, marketing and customer satisfaction, but by racking up virtual dollars on his resort du'jour that is exactly what he is practicing.
Similar software ESRB rated "E" for "everyone" includes Real Estate Empire, which introduces the concepts of estimated market value, market conditions as well as balancing manageable debt and foreclosure. Maybe our leaders in corporate banking should have spent more time playing this game. Many of the games, including this one, offer 60 minutes of "free trial" demonstration online.
The object of Wall Street Raider is to build a corporate empire using any means available...hmmm...that sounds familiar. Both fair and unfair tactics are allowed. (Not sure if this game instills the integrity most parents are looking to cultivate in their children, but perhaps the cheaters lose in the end. Then again, maybe not.)
The game's publisher says players must also be ready to face economic disasters and make decisions quickly. Wouldn't it be nice if we really could just restart our portfolios if the game wasn't going our way?
Gazillionaire has won accolades for painlessly teaching business strategy, and although I'm not sure about buying the kiddos Prison Tycoon 4 for Christmas I do think it could make a nice gift for some hard-to-buy-for elected officials. Tycoon City: New York is ESRB rated "T" for "teen", but it looks like fun for aspiring civil engineers and Donald Trump wannabes. For more pleasurable pursuits check out: Cruise Ship Tycoon, Mall Tycoon 3, Lemonade Tycoon, and Golf Resort Tycoon to name a few.
In spite of the fact I once logged enough Monopoly hours to qualify for an MBA, I have since failed to achieve the early promise of becoming a real estate mogul. Of course, that's not why I was playing.
My kids may not wind up developing their own resorts or designing rollercoasters either, but they get a kick out of doing it, and no matter what the future holds a common sense grasp on a few basic principles of business isn't a bad start.
Business as child's play: the best games for budding entreprenuers