Baltimore Sun

Kids' game now takes plastic
Latest edition of Hasbro's Game of Life replaces play cash with ersatz Visa card

Eileen Ambrose, October 9, 2007

Paper or plastic?

That question is at the center of the controversy over Hasbro's recently updated The Game of Life: Twists & Turns edition.

For this update, Hasbro partnered with Visa - and replaced cash with a Visa-branded credit card. Hasbro says plastic reflects the way we make purchases today.

But critics see this as marketing run amok. They worry about introducing children as young as 9 to the world of plastic before they're ready to understand credit.

Card issuers now throw cards at college students without jobs, and critics see the Game of Life's credit card as a way for the industry to reach kids at an even younger age.

"A bad idea," says Robert Manning, director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Manning says consumerism has been creeping into children's board games in recent decades. We've gone from Monopoly, where players invest in properties and accumulate wealth, to Hasbro's Mall Madness, where the player "who buys the most stuff wins," Manning says.

Milton Bradley created the original game, then called The Checkered Game of Life, in 1860. That game reflected the grim times of the Civil War era. Players worked their way from infancy to old age, going through good patches in life along with the bad: poverty, idleness and disgrace. Land on "suicide" and you were out of the game.

A century later the game was lightened up, and that and subsequent updates are what most of us grew up on. Players move through life's experiences from college, marriage and children to getting hit by taxes, a stock market slump and a career change during a mid-life crisis. The player with the most money at retirement wins. Some parents used the game as a jumping off point to talk to kids about finances.

Janet Bodnar, author of Raising Smart Money Kids, says the Game of Life has been her favorite money game for children, even more than Monopoly.

"I played this with my kids. They hated to part with cash. They got the point," she says.

So Bodnar was dismayed earlier this year to hear of Hasbro's plan to replace cash with plastic. "Now you don't even need a banker to keep track of the money," she says.

With the new version, players insert Visa cards into a gadget where dollars and points are electronically added and subtracted. (Hasbro also has introduced a Monopoly electronic banking edition that uses a debit card instead of cash.)

"I'm all for credit. I just think kids aren't mature enough to handle it," Bodnar says.

Others agree.

"Credit cards and ATM cards are just like a magic money tree" to children, says James Roberts, a marketing professor at Baylor University in Texas.

Kids see adults hand a plastic card to someone and get what they want, Roberts says. But they don't see that you have to earn the money you spend or the fact that those bills come home to roost.

"Kids don't get the connection, and it's not just kids," Roberts says. Studies show that we spend more, whether buying fast food or college textbooks, if we use credit cards instead of cash, he says.

Handing cash to a clerk makes us immediately aware of how much we are spending and what we have left, the professor says. A credit card pushes the day of reckoning into the future so we tend to spend more. And now that consumers no longer have to sign for card purchases of less than $25, they are even less likely to be aware of their spending, Roberts says.

Hasbro spokeswoman Pat Riso says the new edition recognizes that life is not just about accumulating the most cash. The goal here is to rack up points by earning money and undertaking certain life experiences, such as going to college, getting married and buying a house or car. The game allows children to test-drive life choices, she says.

"You can't win the game unless you manage your finances properly," Riso says.

Riso says the game maker chose a Visa-brand card to make the game more contemporary and because the game fit Visa's ad campaign of "Life takes Visa."

Visa's role was to add the financial education component, says Jason Alderman, Visa's director of financial education. "We need kids to understand there are choices. There is a big difference between the world of needs and wants," he says.

Parents struggle to make finances engaging and fun for kids, and Visa designed a money guide brochure and real-life money tips to help parents start what could be a difficult conversation, Alderman says. Parents also are directed to Visa's online resources at for lesson plans and other games to teach finances.

Hasbro research with families playing the new edition found that it did start money talks on whether certain risks or activities are worthwhile, Riso says. "That's the part parents really love," she says.

I had the same reservations as the critics before playing back-to-back games with the new and old versions.

Granted, the Visa name on the fake plastic is distracting with its less-than-subtle push to get the Visa name in front of children. Kids are constantly being targeted by advertisers and it would have been nice if Hasbro had made the game a marketing-free zone.

Also, I'm not sure whether some tips are meaningful enough to stick with kids, such as "Life events, like marriage, family, health and accidents can significantly impact your financial stability."

But there are some things the game does well, particularly assessing interest on debt.

My opponent, for instance, started the game in the role of a teacher's assistant earning $5,000 a year. He immediately landed on the opportunity to buy a house. He could have passed, but he bought the least expensive home for $200,000. Each turn, or year in game terms, the gadget subtracted 10 percent interest. (Can you say "subprime loan," kids?) Ultimately, taking on high-cost, heavy debt on a meager salary cost him the game. And that's true in real life, too.

In comparison, playing with cash - even fake peach, blue and gold bills - in the traditional edition seems more real than the credit card. It was painful to pay $40,000 in taxes - twice - or to forfeit money because of some frivolous expense. And acting as banker and making change on a $100,000 bill does test math skills. These are important lessons for kids, too.

Parents will need to decide whether their children are ready to handle plastic or are better off learning finances with hard cash. The new edition costs $34.99, but you can still buy the old one for $14.99.

Whether it's worth shelling out more than twice the money for the updated edition may be the first money discussion parents and children can have.


This story ran on Baltimore Sun on October 9, 2007.