Product Review of NeighborMood
NeighborMood is a simulation game for iOS and Android that teaches financial and consumer literacy. In it, learners take on the role of Ali, a high school senior in Wayde City. Each morning when Ali wakes up, it’s a new week — one of 50 in the school year. Learners must navigate Ali’s day, taking care of her responsibilities and financial needs.
Through a combination of exploration, research, experience, and decision-making, learners learn about financial topics and try to make responsible decisions (many through their phone). They’ll be regularly inundated with ads, townspeople, friends in and out of school, and business people, forcing them to make a decision or give advice before moving on.
Learners must go to school, manage Ali’s bank account, study for tests, hold down a job, and go to soccer practice. They’ll need to sort out information to make thoughtful decisions, balance their study time, make sound purchases and investments, and dodge predatory loans, impulse buys, and scams.
Learners won’t have time to try every opportunity in the game, so every choice they make — fueled by research through their in-game phone’s search engine — narrows their options over time. Choices affect Ali’s level, the town’s level, and Ali’s mood. Helping friends and neighbors wisely also improves player stats, but unwise choices cost players points. Whenever the NeighborMood bar levels up, players get to choose a new store or service to add to the town. Sometimes players are able to talk to Ali’s mom who gives helpful advice on financial topics.
It may take learners a while to figure out the game’s idiosyncrasies. For the most part, the game doesn’t make players actually do their job or take classes — the screen just turns black for a moment to indicate that time is passing. Some pop-up interactions pause the clock, while others keep it running. Some even pause travel toward your destination, costing you precious minutes until you realize Ali has stopped moving.
Some lessons will be learned quickly (like don’t buy impulse items, use a bank and not a payday loan store), but others take many “weeks” to learn or accomplish, such as doing research, planning for the future, saving up for purchases, or preparing for a soccer match.
Since NeighborMood is long — 50 in-game weeks total — it might work best as an out-of-class activity. Teachers could set some game milestones and check in with learners through class discussions or posts on a class website. This will help learners pace themselves and compare notes about lessons they’ve learned.
Teachers can also use FoolProofMe, a website affiliated with the game, which includes articles, guides, and videos covering topics from resisting impulse purchases, buying a car, taking on student loans, and working in the gig economy. The site also includes the FoolProof Academy, with lessons on financial literacy and consumer life skills taught by young people for learners in middle school, high school, college, and beyond.
Teachers may want to point out to learners, and perhaps discuss, that some information in the game isn’t very realistic, such as earning 8% or 9% interest on a savings account, getting $18/hour for a very part-time job, or having a 50-week school year.
In NeighborMood, learners gradually learn responsible financial habits, including how to spot red flags for scammers and opportunists. They’ll learn to spot useful, misleading, and illogical details in advertising, from companies, and even from friends. They’ll also learn how to seek out quality information and how to evaluate different job opportunities or options for bank accounts.
Players will need to do their own investigation, but the game guides them in what to look for. Learners will have to make difficult decisions about what to prioritize, since there are only so many hours in the day, and certain things are only available at certain times (including only during the school day). For example, if learners arrive late to school, they can’t attend that day. There are also trade-offs when planning the city: Learners can build a shoe store to upgrade their soccer shoes, or establish a bus system to give them that travel option, but they can’t do everything.
The premise of the game is solid, and its general teaching method sound, but the unbalanced gameplay gets in the way of learning. First, the story-based pop-up ads are frequent and distracting. Including them does make an important point, but it would be nice if they went away completely once learners demonstrate they understand pop-up ads should be dismissed. Second, it takes a long time to navigate the city, no matter which method you use. This means that on school days, learners might have time to visit only one place after school before everything closes. They may have to weigh whether to go to their job, go to the bank, or buy new soccer shoes. If players take a wrong turn, they may run out of time to make any stops. Sometimes there’s additional time for soccer practice, but then Ali needs to go home to study and sleep.
Ali gets an occasional day off school (without any warning), but if players skip school to work or run errands, they get an unexcused absence. Like with the pop-ups ads, these features bring up a valid point, but they’re not fine-tuned enough to do so without creating unnecessary frustrations. As a result, with NeighborMood, learners may just have to be satisfied with learning the lessons without necessarily succeeding in the game.
Overall User Consensus About the App
The cute-but-busy design and relatable situations will grab learners initially, but the monotonous story-based pop-ups and slow travel could test their patience.
Curriculum and Instruction
Learners research and make choices as they juggle obligations and work through real-life financial situations. They’ll gain points for responsible decisions and lose points for careless ones.
The game begins with a helpful tutorial to orient learners, and the website includes plenty of additional resources to support the lessons learned in the game.