On September 17th 2013, I invested $520,500 in AirEMU (EMU), a European aircraft manufacturer. I was confident EMU shares would perform well in the 5 hours that followed. Still, my chest felt tense when I realized that my life savings hinged on a single trade. I went to the kitchen to grab a glass of ice water. Three hours later there was an unexpected disaster: four AirEMU aircraft were destroyed in a runway accident. EMU took a beating from $24.55 to $15 and it kept dropping. Before the stock rebounded I panicked and sold my shares, plummeting $343,232 into the red. I had no choice but to restart from a checkpoint.
When I started playing Grand Theft Auto V last year, I found the in-game stock market to be as interesting as the main storyline. Players worldwide influence stock movement through their in-game trading behavior. My stint as an unsuccessful GTA5 investor led me to buy stocks (in a much smaller quantity) in the real world. Part of it was just a coincidence — the game launched around the time I started a new job and had to make investment decisions — but it was also about experimentation. Through GTA5's economy I developed a personal investing style without taking on any real risk. Unlike in standalone stock market simulators, the virtual dollars unlocked something. I could buy boats, helicopters and dozens of other items.
Despite the occasional $520k leap of faith, my behavior in video game economies tends to be conservative, mirroring the way I save and invest in real life. In Fallout New Vegas I fought hard for the Fat Man, a rare gun that fires mini atomic bombs. I finally found the weapon, yet I played through the storyline without firing it. Todd Howard, the game's creative director, acknowledged this behavior during a speech. He said he likes to give players an overpowered weapon in case they get stuck, but many people don't use it. They fear that if they tap into their resource prematurely, they'll regret it when a bigger, badder challenge pops up. I subconsciously channeled this logic when I was managing my first emergency fund.
Playing video games since I was 8 or 9 has shaped the way I think about money. Kids' games like Super Mario 64 and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater introduced me to simple economies based on collecting stars and managing skateboard inventories. Years later the Fallout series inspired me to boost my cash reserve. Losing half a million in GTA5 cranked down my risk tolerance. I haven't seen research that explores how games affect adolescents' perception and understanding of money. Based on my experience, which I don't think is unique, role-playing games can be a teaching tool for finance. I mean mainstream games that feature economies rather than games that are mock economies.
Games are a unique teaching tool. They simulate the social and emotional aspects of investing that are so hard to fathom until you become an adult who puts money at risk.