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Olympic Debt: International Racing Squirrels

Today I paid my bills, considered the pros and cons of renting a nicer apartment, opened a bank account that seemed vaguely exploitative, feared that I was in danger of spending beyond my means and made a squirrel wear hob-nailed boots so that it could kick its athletic opponents in the back of the knee. Then I wondered if squirrels have knees. I've actually done all of those things, except the bits about squirrels. UNTIL NOW. International Racing Squirrels, a free browser game developed by Playniac for Britain's own Channel 4, aims to teach youngsters about financial responsibility and running small businesses. Does it work?

On so many levels, my education was as good as anyone could hope for. I had access to fantastic libraries, excellent minds and inspirational surroundings. All of that mattered and if you want a lecture about the theatre of the absurd you could do a lot worse than offering me the floor. Ask me to handle my own finances or set up a small business and you'd get much the same result; a lesson in the theatre of the absurd, complete with me ending up dead in a dustbin.

In the real world, when I log into my online banking account I'm pretty sure I'm using some sort of 'Baby's First Bank' version that they switch people across to if they notice certain spending patterns. There's limited functionality, all the digits are in a massive font and any day now I'm expecting cartoon characters to start offering advice from the corner of the screen. "Stop spending all your money on toffees and pleasure, and squirrel some away for the future!" a topical squirrel might say topically.

Perhaps all of that contributes to the panic I feel watching the 'bills' counter in International Racing Squirrels turning red and alarming. The game plays continuously, the days ticking by as your squirrel employees recover energy to prepare for their next race. At the top of the screen a meter fills, showing the time until the end of the month when money will drain from your accounts to pay the wages of your racers and the rent on their homes. The threat of bailiffs hangs in the air like a disco ball made of rancid beef and soon you're pushing the squirrels to their limits in order to make ends meet.

As soon as I mention the squirrels it sounds ridiculous again but there are realistic elements to the various bank accounts you can apply for, and a recognisable tendency for success to bring about the need for more spending. The better you do the more taxes you pay and as far as I can see there's no option to do a Jimmy Carr follow the lead of major corporations, OBE winners and political donors by bunging all your earnings into a bank account in a different solar system.

There's a vaguely threatening guide who'll lead you through your options but eventually you're left to fend for yourself, although within the limits of what your current experience level will allow. Those limitations prevent you from blowing your first lot of winnings on a second home, two new team members and top of the range athletic equipment for all. Do that and you'd go under straight away, the homes reclaimed, the team unpaid. It is possible to take gambles but the game sensibly holds many options back in the early stages.

In some ways, the flow is similar to Kairosoft's cleverphone offerings. There are events (races), actors (squirrels), equipment (shoes, food, bling) and it's all down to earning more than you spend by applying those things to one another. The races play out from an overhead view and there's some interaction, very basic quick time events to overtake or block a chaser, but mostly it comes down to stats.

Certain zones of the track will speed up or slow down your squirrel depending on his/her level in the corresponding stat. Therefore, putting the right squirrel into the right race and occasionally using bonus items is the key to winning. There's some fairly impressive voicework as well, with commentary for different situations, even if the squirrels do seem a little too obsessed with texting even during a race. Yoofs, eh?

But what have I learned? The thing that impressed itself most on me was the escalation. By the time I had upgraded my squirrels' home and expanded the team a little I was becoming so successful at winning races that my experience level shot up. When that happened, taxes rose as well and the furry little graspers demanded higher wages. The more I earned the more I paid, and the more pressure I felt to keep winning, which meant I was more likely to throw money at equipment and one-use items to gain an edge.

Aesthetically and functionally, it's a well-presented game, with a sinister undertone behind the humour and apparent cuteness, although it occasionally references something that makes me feel old and then I feel sad and disconnected. That said, pop culture references have been making me feel old since I was about twelve. Whether it'll entertain its target audience for long I'm not sure, nor how much the notion of moody squirrels will appeal, but beneath the distinctly odd theme is a decent lesson in cause and effect, whether investing, earning or spending, and then there's overdrawing, borrowing and saving to muck up as well. Not bad at all.

It certainly made me realise that the threat of a rising debt bar can be much more fearsome than that of a falling health bar. Worth a look because for all its apparent financial wisdom, the game won't cost you a penny.

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