Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How young is the oldest building in your state?
Map shows oldest buildings for each U.S. state – but also hints at what's missing.
- How old is the oldest building in your state? This map will tell you.
- While the East Coast has some pretty ancient stuff, the oldest buildings elsewhere are many centuries older.
- The Pueblo dwellings in the Four Corners states go back to 750 CE.
Oldest drinking establishment
The White Horse Tavern in Newport, the oldest drinking establishment in the United States.
Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0
What's the difference between a European and an American? Well, there are many, but here's a good one: for a European, 100 miles is far; for an American, 100 years is old.
It's a cliché with some truth to it. In Europe's political and cultural mosaic, 100 miles may put you in a different country, among people with whom you don't even share a language. Consequently, most Europeans are not keen to move too far away from home.
America, on the other hand, was built by and for people with the moving itch. In 2018, 1 in 10 Americans moved home. Of those, 15 percent moved to another state.
However, what Europe's human geography lacks in long distances, it makes up for in longevity. In Ireland, for example, you can drink at Sean's Bar, which has stood near the banks of the Shannon since the year 900 (for more 'oldest companies', see #1042).
By comparison, the oldest drinking establishment in the United States, the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island has only just opened its doors: it's from the late 18th century, which means it's not even three and a half centuries old.
As demonstrated by this map of the oldest buildings for each U.S. state (plus Puerto Rico), most of the nation's ancient real estate is even younger: 15 buildings are from the 19th century, 18 are from the 18th century. A further dozen places on the map were built by conquerors and colonizers after the European arrival in the Americas, clocking in at half a millennium or less.
The really old stuff is of Native origin – the oldest even predates the Irish drinking establishment by a century and a half. What's remarkable, however, is that there is so little of it. Only six states have Native American (or Hawaiian) structures as their oldest buildings.
A few non-sinister reasons can be adduced. Many Native tribes led itinerant lives, without the need for permanent dwellings; and those that did settle down often built houses out of wattle, wood and other matters that easily decay.
However, the preponderance of 'European' buildings also masks a grimmer truth. Many Native structures were abandoned and fell into disrepair or oblivion when the Europeans arrived, or were destroyed outright.
Mounds not included
Due to the definition used, Native structures that don't qualify as buildings have not been included on the map.
Credit: Malcolm Tunnell, reproduced with kind permission
An argument may be had about the criteria for inclusion. It defines a 'building' as a free-standing, human-made structure used at least at some point for residential purposes, and still standing today.
That excludes a lot of older mounds of Native origin, such as the Etowah Indian Mounds (near Atlanta) and Monks' Mound (near St Louis). However, it is unclear why the list should include a number of churches, which never had an appreciable residential function.
Finally, this list, culled from the National Register of Historic Places and–gulp–Wikipedia is not without its problems. Some of the datings are disputed, and in several cases, states have competing candidates for 'oldest building'.
All that being said, the map does present a clear lesson. Leave the states with Native buildings out of the equation, and a familiar pattern becomes visible. The oldest structures are on the Eastern Seaboard, next up are what is now the Midwest and the Pacific coast. Then comes the 'Wild' west, the last frontier. This is the story of westward expansion and fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.
But the map also reveals traces of an older, less familiar narrative. The Ancestral Puebloans were already carving out their desert mansions around 750 CE, before there even was an England. We know little of the culture that built the Ocmulgee Earthlodge in Georgia around the year 1000. The Malae Heiau barely escaped bulldozing, despite being at least 800 years old. These Native structures, what few remain, contradict the well-worn story – or complete it, if you will.
Here's an overview of all the places on the map, from youngest to oldest.
The 'youngest' oldest building
Magazine at Fort Sisseton, the oldest building complex in South Dakota.
Credit: Ammodramus, Public Domain.
1864 - South Dakota: Fort Sisseton, Lake City
The 'youngest' oldest building of any state. Named after a local Indian tribe, this fort is located atop the Coteau des Prairies, an excellent defensive position.
1855 - Nevada: Old Mormon Fort, Las Vegas
The first permanent structure in what is now Las Vegas was an adobe fort built by Mormons, sent out from Utah to set up a new stronghold for the Latter-Day Saints. That didn't quite go as planned.
1853 - Idaho: Cataldo Mission, Cataldo
The Mission of the Sacred Heart in Cataldo was built by Catholic missionaries to the tribe of the Cœur d'Alene tribe. A picture of this mission hangs in the Brumidi Corridors of the US Capitol.
1849 - Wyoming: Fort Laramie, Goshen
Founded as a private fur trading station, later repurposed as a military fort.
1844 - Montana: Old Fort Benton Blockhouse, Fort Benton
Once the terminus of the Mullan Road, which linked the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and the last fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River.
1843 - North Dakota: Kittson Trading Post, Walhalla
This is the only surviving of three trading posts built by, Norman W. Kittson, trader for the American Fur Company. It was later used as stables for a local hotel.
1843 - Washington: Fort Nisqually granary, Tacoma
Founded in 1833 and currently located in Point Defiance Park, Fort Nisqually is the oldest European settlement on Puget Sound. The granary is its oldest surviving building.
1840 - Oklahoma: Fort Gibson Barracks, Fort Gibson
In competition for the title of oldest building in the state with the Cherokee National Supreme Court Building in Tahlequah.
1835 - Nebraska: log cabin, Bellevue
According to legend, this log cabin was built as an outpost of John Jacob Astor's legendary American Fur Company. Due to a cholera outbreak, it was moved away from the Missouri River, and in 1850 it was relocated to its present position, near the Old Presbyterian Church.
1833 - Iowa: Louis Arriandeaux Log House, Dubuque
The log cabin originally stood at 2nd and Locust Streets in Dubuque but has since been moved twice. The oldest building in Iowa, once home to pioneer settler William Newman, can now be found on the grounds of the Mathias Ham House.
Grouseland, fit for a president
Grouseland was built by William Henry Harrison before he became the 9th president of the United States.
Credit: Nyttend, Public Domain.
1824 - Arkansas: Woodruff Print Shop, Little Rock
In the late 1810s, New Yorker Andrew Woodruff moved to Arkansas, where he would publish the Arkansas Gazette. From 1824, he lived and worked in the print shop that is now part of the Historic Arkansas Museum.
1820 - Minnesota: Fort Snelling Round Tower, St Paul
When Fort Snelling was completed in 1825, this tower–built at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers–was already five years old. The Fort's aim was to keep British influence out of what was then the Northwestern United States and it was in service until 1858.
1810 - Alaska: Baranov Museum, Kodiak
Originally built as a warehouse for the Russian-American Trading Company in Kodiak, the oldest Russian settlement in Alaska. The building housed workers in the 19th century, was the site of a murder in 1886, and is supposedly haunted.
1808 - Alabama: Joel Eddins House, Huntsville
Originally built in Ardmore, this log cabin was moved to its current location in 2007.
1804 - Indiana: Grouseland, Vincennes
William Henry Harrison was not only the 9th president of the United States, but also the builder of what has turned out to be the oldest building in Indiana. He built Grouseland, a brick mansion, in 1804 when he was governor of the Indiana Territory. He lived there until 1812, when he took command of American forces in the Northwest Territory in the war with the British.
1799 - Oregon: Molalla Log House, Molalla
Built by fur traders of French-Canadian and/or Native American origin.
1792 - Missouri: Louis Bolduc House, Sainte Genevieve
Ste Genevieve is Missouri's oldest European settlement, founded by the French and named after the patron saint of Paris. The oldest house in town was built by Louis Bolduc, trader, miner, planter, and a descendant of Louis XIV's apothecary.
1790 - Kentucky: Historic Locust Grove, Louisville
In the running for oldest building in Kentucky, in close competition with the Old Providence Church in Winchester, John Andrew Miller House near Georgetown, and others. Lewis and Clark were officially welcomed back here in November 1809, after their western expedition.
1788 - Ohio: General Rufus Putnam House, Rutland
Named after Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War general who helped found Marietta, Ohio. Now a B&B.
The convent saved by prayer
The Old Ursuline Convent in New Orleans.
Credit: Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress, Public Domain.
1785 - West Virginia: Rehoboth Church, Monroe County
A log cabin outside the town of Union, built as a Methodist church, is now a National Methodist Shrine.
1780 - Michigan: Officers' Stone Quarters, Mackinac Island
The Officers' Stone Quarters are the oldest part of Fort Mackinac, an originally British fort on Mackinac Island that was turned over to the Americans in 1796.
1778 - Tennessee: Christopher Taylor House, Jonesborough
Built by Christopher Taylor, a veteran of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Andrew Jackson lived in it in 1788-1789 while practicing law in Jonesborough. Possibly the oldest house in the state; another candidate is the Carter Mansion in Elizabethton.
1776 - Wisconsin: Tank Cottage, Green Bay
Built by French-Canadian fur trader Joseph Roi on the Fox River, purchased in 1850 by Nils Otto Tank, a Norwegian missionary.
1776 - California: Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
The mission survived dereliction, earthquakes, revolution, and expropriation. In 1910, it was the backdrop for "The Two Brothers" by D.W. Griffith, the first movie shot in Orange County. The mission of San Juan Capistrano is famous for the swallows that return here each spring. Mission San Diego de Alcalá (est. 1769) was the first in California and is thus older; but none of the original buildings survive.
1769 - Vermont: William Henry House, Bennington
Built for Elnathan Hubbell and reworked around 1797 for William Henry, a locally prominent politician whose son went on to become a U.S. Congressman. Now operating as a B&B.
1765 - Washington DC: Old Stone House
When it was built, the Old Stone House stood in the British colony of Maryland. The building was preserved out of reverence for the city's founders – by accident. It was thought this was where George Washington met with Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the DC street grid. But it turns out this was not Suter's Tavern. At the time, this was a clock shop, owned by the tavern holder's son, John Suter Jr.
1757 - Mississippi: LaPointe-Krebs House, Pascagoula
Also known as the Old Spanish Fort, this house is the oldest structure in the entire Mississippi Valley.
1748 - Louisiana: Old Ursuline Convent, New Orleans
The convent was spared destruction by a city-wide fire, which stopped just a street short of the building, perhaps thanks to the nuns' prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Prayers are still addressed to her when hurricanes and other disasters threaten the city.
1740 - Illinois: Old Cahokia Courthouse, Cahokia
Built in the 1730s by the French as a house, it has been used as a courthouse since 1793 and is most famous as the headquarters for Lewis and Clark around 1803 when planning their expedition.
America’s oldest masonry fortress
The Castillo de San Marcos, as seen from above.
Credit: Daniel Cring, CC BY-SA 4.0.
1724 - Texas: Alamo Mission Long Barracks, San Antonio
The oldest extant part of the Alamo, which was founded as a Spanish mission but is best remembered for the Battle of the Alamo (1836), which played an important role in Texan independence from Mexico.
1718 - North Carolina: Lane House, Edenton
Steve and Linda Lane didn't know how old their house was until they had it renovated. Behind the cheap wall paneling, the workers found 18th-century timber structures.
1694 - South Carolina: Middleburg Plantation, Berkeley County
This two-story frame house was built by Benjamin Simons, a French Huguenot planter, and is still owned by his descendants.
1675 - Maryland: Old Trinity Church, Church Creek
An Anglican church since 1692, the building has been Protestant Episcopal since the Revolution. The cemetery holds the remains of several revolutionary war heroes.
1673 - Rhode Island: White Horse Tavern, Newport
Not just the oldest building in the state, also the oldest bar in the entire country. In the spirit of its age, the tavern is still lit by oil lamps and candles.
1672 - Florida: Castillo de San Marcos, St Augustine
The Spanish-built Caste of St Mark is the only surviving 17th-century military structure in the United States. It is also the country's oldest masonry fortress. It is located in St Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental United States.
1665 - Delaware: Ryves Holt House, Lewes
Built by Dutch settlers but named after the first Chief Justice of Delaware, who bought it in 1723.
1660 - Maine: William Whipple House, Kittery
Birthplace of General William Whipple, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
1650 - Kansas: El Quartelejo ruins, Lake Scott S.P.
The northernmost Native American pueblo and the only one in Kansas, established by a group that left New Mexico. In 1706, the Spanish conquered the area and forced the inhabitants back. The structure was rediscovered in 1898 and is now part of a State Park.
1650 - Pennsylvania: Lower Swedish Cabin, Drexel Hill
Now on the outskirts of Philadelphia, this cabin was built by Swedish immigrants as a trading post. It has since served various purposes, including film set and girl scout meeting house.
Thousand-year-old Puebloan structures built adjacent the living rock, creating buildings that stood the test of time.
Credit: au_ears, CC BY-SA 2.0.
1647 - Virginia: Jamestown Church, Jamestown
Only the tower dates from the 16th century, the rest of this building in Historic Jamestown park is actually the sixth version of the original. In one of those, Pocahontas and John Rolfe got married.
1641 - Massachusetts: Fairbanks House, Dedham
Fairbanks House is the oldest still standing wooden structure in North America. It was built for Jonathan Fairbanks, a tradesman, and his family. His descendants continued to live in the house well into the 20th century.
1640 - Connecticut: Henry Whitfield House, Guilford
Built for the Reverend Henry Whitfield, a Puritan leader and the founder of Guilford. This is the oldest stone house in all of New England.
1639 - New York: Gardiners Island shed, Gardiners Island
A wooden shed purportedly built when Lion Gardiner bought the island from Montaukett chief Wyandanch. Located off the tip of Long Island, Gardiners Island is still owned by Gardiner's descendants. It is one of the largest private islands in the U.S. In June 1699, Captain Kidd buried treasure here (it has since been retrieved – you're too late).
1600 - New Hampshire: Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth
Not a single building but an entire historic district, featuring around 40 restored buildings. Saved from redevelopment in the 1950s, the area opened as a museum in 1965.
1521 - Puerto Rico: Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, San Juan
Extensively added to and renovated since its inauguration almost five centuries ago, this is the oldest church in the United States and its territories.
1200 - Hawaii: Malae Heiau, Wailua River S.P.
The largest heiau (Hawaiian temple) on Kauai, one of the largest surviving temple platforms in all of Hawaii, as well as the oldest building still in existence in the state.
1015 - Georgia: Ocmulgee Earth Lodge, Macon
A reconstructed ceremonial lodge originally built a millennium ago by the South Appalachian Mississippian culture on a site with evidence of 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. It is now part of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park.
Ca. 750 - Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico Utah: ancestral Puebloan dwellings
Hundreds of stone and adobe dwellings, often constructed in canyon walls, scattered throughout the Four Corners states. Most were abandoned around 1300 due to climate change.
Map by Malcolm Tunnell, reproduced with kind permission. See the original context here.
Strange Maps #1062
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
- Could South America be Atlantis? - Big Think ›
- Discovery of North America's Oldest Settlement Proves Native ... ›
- Cahokia: North America's massive, ancient city ›
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
A socially minded franchise model makes money while improving society.
- A social enterprise in California makes their franchises affordable with low interest loans and guaranteed salaries.
- The loans are backed by charitable foundations.
- If scaled up, the model could support tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who are currently financially incapable of entering franchise agreements.
The underdog challenging McDonald’s & Wall Street | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Social responsibility is becoming a major focus of many businesses. While turning a profit is always the ultimate goal — nobody can eat good intentions, after all — having a positive impact on society is becoming an equally important goal.
A restaurant chain in California, already focused on providing healthy food at a competitive cost, is testing a new way to create more entrepreneurs. Specifically, it is working with charitable foundations to provide business opportunities to those who normally would not have access.
When a company wants to expand without paying all of the upfront costs itself or taking on the entire risk of operating in a new market, it can enter into a franchise agreement with an entrepreneur. In exchange for a share of the profits (as well as some fees and adherence to certain quality standards), the entrepreneur — now a franchisee — can open their own branch of a larger brand. The entrepreneur enjoys the benefits of owning a business, while the brand owner can cash in on intellectual property.
This model is wildly successful. There is a reason you can find fast food joints like McDonald's everywhere from Times Square to Prague (next to the Museum of Communism, no less). According to the International Franchise Association, there were more than 733,000 franchised business establishments in the United States in 2018, accounting for nearly 3 percent of GDP.
The franchise model — in which a local agent keeps some earnings while handing over a portion to a central authority — isn't new. Indeed, variations have been around since the Middle Ages, though it only took off after WWII. Franchising is now a recognized system in many countries and is used in all manner of industries, including restaurants, pet supply stores, automotive repair shops, hotels, and even senior care.
The Catch-22: you have to spend money to make money
The biggest problem with franchising is the high cost of becoming a franchisee.
While the costs vary, opening a restaurant as a franchisee can easily cost $500,000. A franchise car repair shop can require $250,000, and opening a hotel under a franchise's banner can set a person back millions. In some cases, the franchiser also will set a minimum net worth requirement or insist that the money that pays their fees not be borrowed. Even if a person can find a way around that, most new businesses do not turn a profit for quite some time after opening. These limitations essentially rule out all but the wealthy from becoming a franchisee.
As a result, there are some social enterprises that are looking to make franchising more accessible to the less affluent.
As a business that hopes to rapidly expand, they looked to franchising. However, the idea of seeking out a bunch of rich people to support a business like theirs struck CEO Sam Polk as out of step with its vision. So, the company came up with a better idea.
Their Social Equity Franchise Program helps tenured Everytable employees open their own franchise locations through free training and assistance in securing low interest loans to finance the store. To help the entrepreneurs survive the difficult early years, participants in the program are assured an income of $40,000 in their first three years of operations. Repayments on the loans do not begin until after the business is turning a profit.
The capital for all these low interest loans comes from a number of foundations such as the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness). Foundations like these are required to give away a small portion of their endowments every year on causes aligned with their missions. However, most of the rest of it is simply invested in the stock market to assure the endowment continues to exist.
People like Cal Wellness CEO Judy Belk have begun to invest that money elsewhere, like in loans to provide the money needed to open an Everytable franchise. As she explained to FreeThink:
"Cal Wellness and many other foundations are saying, 'I think we can do a little better with that [money]. Why not use that capital to invest in the communities that we're supposed to serve?'"
In the end, Everytable gets a new restaurant that expands the brand, foundations get returns on their investment, and the franchisee gets an opportunity that they likely never would have had without the program.
Expanding the Everytable model
If even a small share of the $2 trillion foundations in the U.S. have are invested into this sort of social cause, tens of thousands of loans could be given to those less affluent people who are looking to start a business. While this model likely would lower returns to institutional investors like charities, they could enjoy more tangible results in the communities they exist to serve. According to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, local entrepreneurship increases income and employment and decreases poverty.
At the individual level, this would help a lot of people who otherwise never would be able to seriously consider going into business for themselves. By a number of measures, business owners make more than wage workers and can also claim ownership of the assets that comprise the business. Beyond that, many small business owners enjoy the non-financial benefits of their position as well, including the independence and autonomy that often come with business ownership.
When working optimally, good business is good for society.
Fintech companies are using elements of video games to make personal finance more fun. But does it work, and what are the risks?
- Gamification is the process of incorporating elements of video games into a business, organization, or system, with the goal of boosting engagement or performance.
- Gamified personal finance apps aim to help people make better financial decisions, often by redirecting destructive financial behaviors (like playing the lottery) toward positive outcomes.
- Still, gamification has its risks, and scientists are still working to understand how gamification affects our financial behavior.
- YouTube www.youtube.com
The human brain is a pretty lazy organ. Although it's capable of remarkable ingenuity, it's also responsible for nudging us into bad behavioral patterns, such as being impulsive or avoiding difficult but important decisions. These kinds of short-sighted behaviors can hurt our finances.
However, they don't hurt the video game industry. In 2020, video games generated more than $179 billion in revenue, making the industry more valuable than sports and movies combined. A 2021 report from Limelight Network found that gamers worldwide spend an average of 8 hours and 27 minutes per week playing video games.
Good at gaming, bad at saving
It's not necessarily bad that Americans spend millions of dollars and hours on video games. But consider another set of statistics: 25 percent of Americans have no retirement savings at all, while roughly half are either living "on the edge" or "paycheck to paycheck," according to a recent report on the Financial Resilience of Americans from the FINRA Education Foundation. Meanwhile, experts predict that Social Security funds could dry up by 2035.
So, why don't people save more? After all, the benefits of compounding interest aren't exactly a secret: Investing a few hundred bucks every month would make most people millionaires by retirement if they start in their twenties. However, the recent FINRA report found that many Americans have alarmingly low levels of financial literacy, a topic that's not taught in most public schools.
Even for the financially literate, saving money is psychologically difficult
But what if we could infuse the instant gratification of video games into our long-term financial habits? In other words, what if finance looked less like an Excel spreadsheet and more like your favorite video game?
A growing number of finance applications are making that a reality. By using the same strategies video game designers have been optimizing for decades, gamifying personal finance could be one of the most efficient ways to help people save for the future while reaping instant psychological rewards. But it doesn't come without risks.
What is gamification?
In simple terms, gamification takes the motivating power of video games and applies it to other areas of life. The global research company Gartner offers a slightly more technical definition of gamification: "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."
The odds are you have encountered gamification already. It's utilized by many popular apps, websites, and devices. For example, LinkedIn displays progress bars representing how much profile information you have filled out. The Apple Watch has a "Close Your Rings" feature that shows how many steps you need to walk to meet your daily goal.
Brands have used gamification to boost customer engagement for decades. For example, McDonald's launched its Monopoly game in 1987, which essentially attached lottery tickets to menu items, while M&M's gained consumer attention with Eye-Spy Pretzel, an online scavenger hunt game that went viral in 2010.
In addition to marketing, gamification is used in social media, fitness, education, crowdfunding, military recruitment, and employee training, just to name a few applications. The Chinese government has even gamified aspects of its Social Credit System, in which citizens perform or refrain from various activities to earn points that represent trustworthiness.
Finance is arguably one of the best-suited fields for gamification. One reason is that financial data can be easily measured and graphed. Perhaps more importantly, financial decisions occur in the background of almost everything we do in modern life, from deciding what we eat for lunch to where we are going to spend our lives.
Gamification doesn't just make boring stuff fun; it's also an effective way to change our behavior. Used properly, it can also disrupt our habits.
The nature of habits
It's tempting to think that we make our way through life by thoughtfully considering the information before us and making sensible choices. That's not really the case. Research suggests that about 40 percent of our daily activities are performed out of habit, a term the American Journal of Psychology defines as a "more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."
In other words, we spend much of our lives on autopilot. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we rely on habits: our brains require a lot of energy, especially when we're faced with tough decisions and complex problems, like financial planning. It's relatively easy to rely on learned behavioral patterns that provide a quick, reliable solution. However, those patterns don't always serve our long-term interests.
Saving money is a good example. Imagine you have $500 with which to do whatever you want. You could invest it. Or you could go on a shopping spree. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't process these two options the same way; in fact, it actually processes the investing option as something like a pain stimulus.
Why gamification works
Saving is painful. But can't people simply choose to be more financially responsible? In short: Yes, but it takes a lot of effort. After all, when it comes to changing behavior, willpower is only part of the equation.
Some psychologists think willpower is a finite resource, or that it's like an emotion whose motivational power ebbs and flows based on what's happening around us. For example, you might establish a monthly budget and stick to it for a couple weeks. But then you get stressed. The next time you're out shopping, you might find it harder to resist making an impulsive purchase in your stressed-out state.
Pixel Art Lootvlasdv via Adobe Stock
"A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll," the American Psychological Association writes. "Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse." In the terminology of psychology, this is called ego depletion.
Gamification offers a way to outsource your willpower. That's because games offer psychological rewards that can motivate us to perform certain actions that might otherwise have seemed too boring, taxing, or emotionally draining. What's more, gamifying parts of your life is less of a change of mind and more of a change of environment.
A 2017 study published in Computers in Human Behavior noted that "enriching the environment with game design elements, as gamification does by definition, directly modifies that environment, thereby potentially affecting motivational and psychological user experiences."
The study argued that games are most motivational when they address three key psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and social relatedness. It's easy to imagine how games can tap into these categories. For competence, games can feature badges and performance graphs. For autonomy, games can offer customizable avatars. And for social relatedness, games can feature compelling storylines and multiplayer gameplay.
Gamification and the brain
Games can motivate us by satisfying our psychological needs and giving us a sense of reward. From a neurological perspective, this occurs through the release of "feel-good" neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and oxytocin.
"Two core things have to happen in the brain to influence your decision-making," Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and professor of economic sciences at Claremont Graduate University, told Big Think. "The first is you have to attend to that information. That's driven by the brain's production of dopamine. The second thing, you've got to get my lazy brain to care about the outcomes. And that caring is driven by emotional resonance. And that's associated with the brain's production of oxytocin."
Cheerful Father And Son Competing In Video Games At HomeProstock-studio via Adobe Stock
When released simultaneously, these neurotransmitters can put us into a state that Zak calls "neurologic immersion." In this state, our everyday habits have less control over our behavior, and we're better able to take deliberate action. It's an idea Zak and his colleagues developed over two decades of using brain-imaging technology to study the nature of extraordinary experiences.
As he wrote in an article published by the World Experience Organization, neurologic immersion can occur when experiences, including video games, are unexpected, emotionally charged, narrowing one's focus to the experience itself, easy to remember, and provoking actions.
"The components of the extraordinary come as a package, not in isolation from each other," Zak wrote. "It's the 'action' part that is key to finding immersion. Extraordinary experiences cause people to take an action, whether it's donating to charity, buying a product, posting on social media, or returning to enjoy an experience again."
Games can invoke these types of immersive experiences.. But how exactly are financial organizations using gamification to help people "level up" their financial futures?
Gamifying personal finance
Banks and financial companies have been using gamification for years. What started with simple concepts, like PNC Bank's "Punch the Pig" savings feature, has evolved into a diverse field of games that are helping people stick to budgets, save money, and pay off debt.
What's surprising about the gamification of personal finance is that some of the most successful apps are redirecting destructive financial behaviors, like buying lottery tickets, toward positive outcomes. One example is an app called Long Game, which uses an approach called "lottery savings."
"People actually really love the lottery," Lindsay Holden, co-founder and CEO of Long Game, told Big Think. "The lottery today is a $70-billion-dollar industry in the U.S., and the people that are buying lotto tickets are the people that least should be buying lotto tickets. And so how can we redirect that spend into something that's helping them in their lives?"
Long Game's answer is to encourage users to make automatic or one-time investments into a prize-linked savings account. As users make investments, they earn coins that can be used to play games, some of which offer cash prizes. But unlike the real lottery, the prize money comes from banks that are partnered with Long Game, meaning users can't lose their principal investment.
Blast is a savings app aimed at traditional gamers. The platform lets users connect a savings account to their video game accounts. Users then set performance goals in the video games, such as killing a certain number of enemies. Accomplishing these goals triggers a pre-selected investment into the savings accounts. In addition to earning interest, users can also win prize money by accomplishing certain missions or placing high on public leaderboards.
"Gamers tell us they feel better with the time they spend gaming when they know they are micro-saving or micro-earning in the background," Blast co-founder and CEO Walter Cruttenden said in a statement.
Young gamer playing a video game wearing headphones.sezer66 via Adobe Stock
Fortune City takes a different approach to gamified finance. The app encourages users to track their spending habits, which are represented by visually appealing graphs. As users log expenses, they're able to build buildings in their own virtual city. The expense categories match the types of buildings users can construct; for example, buying food lets users construct a restaurant. It's like "SimCity" meets certified public accountant.
The risks of gamification
Gamifying your finances might help you save money, but it doesn't come without risks. After all, receiving extrinsic rewards when we perform a behavior can affect our intrinsic motivation to repeat that behavior both positively and negatively. It's a phenomenon called the overjustification effect.
In addition, gamified finance apps can also be addictive and encourage risky financial behavior. Robinhood, for example, uses visually appealing performance metrics and lottery-like game elements to incentivize the trading of stocks and cryptocurrencies. But while investing in these assets might be a good financial decision for some people, Robinhood arguably encourages its users to be "players" in the difficult world of trading, not necessarily rational investors.
What's more, gamification doesn't seem to work for everyone.
"From social psychology and behavioural economics, we know that the most likely [result of] gamification [is that you] will motivate some people, will demotivate other people, and for a third group there'll be no effect at all," noted a 2017 study on gamification and mobile banking published in Internet Research.
But given that 14.1 million Americans are unbanked, and millions more struggle with financial literacy, it's reasonable to think that gamified finance apps could help many people work toward financial independence.
"One of the most interesting things we've found is that people want help when it comes to making difficult decisions," Zak told Big Think. "In my view, any app that helps you be a more effective saver is probably a good app. But I think we have to do a lot more work to really understand the underlying neuroscience of gamification. And so we need to continue to design games that teach you more about how to 'level up in life,' not just level up in the game."