My last post surveyed what I called “government games.” It’s a fluid genre from the point of view of game mechanics, though common elements can be identified (many drawn from the broader strategy genre, such as button-based user interfaces and turn-based gameplay to simulate the passage of time). The key criterion, for me, is that government games must provide the player with means to influence at least one of the twin levers of power: politics and policy.

Most government games focus either primarily or exclusively on politics. It’s tempting to speculate why, but I’ll save that for another time. Budget Hero, a Flash-based game released in 2008, is instead concerned with the effects of policy. In Budget Hero, the player sets policy goals (which are arguably also political goals) and then attempts to achieve them without busting the U.S. federal budget.

The game manages to forge a fun experience out of material that might have been dry as bones. It also has an interesting provenance: Budget Hero was produced by American Public Media, the second largest public radio organization in the United States. American Public Media is responsible for well-known radio programs Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion, among others.

In this post, I’ll be asking my usual questions about the goals, gameplay and effectiveness of Budget Hero. I’ll also ask why an organization like American Public Media might have decided to fund a game like Budget Hero in the first place.

How does it play?

Budget Hero is simple, but fun for its short duration. When you start the game, you’ll be asked to choose up to three “badges” representing your political values. These include things like Health and Wellness, Efficient Government and Energy Independence. You’re then taken to the main game screen, where categories of spending in the federal budget are represented by buildings. The height of each building corresponds to the funding of the programs in that category.

Clicking on a building brings up a row of cards, each of which lists a potential change to the budget. “Playing” a card by dragging it to the right side of the screen enacts that change. The cards cut or raise either taxes or program funding, depending on what building you’ve clicked.

Double-clicking a badge, card or building at any time during the game takes you to a screen that provides more information. I imagine that the idea was for players to consider the effects of their choices before making them (pros and cons are provided for every card), but I never found myself reading these. There’s no reason to. As interactive fiction writer Emily Short points out in her blog post about Budget Hero, the consequences of the player’s actions are never felt within the game and are therefore essentially meaningless.

What point is the game is trying to make?

This is a tricky question when it comes to Budget Hero. Any game that simulates the effects of major policy changes is going to have some built-in assumptions that at least border on political biases. According to American Public Media, the game is fundamentally non-partisan:

Budget Hero seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates during this election year. Partisan messages tend to cloud the real issues at play during campaigns, and most candidates are loath to attach detailed financial impacts to solutions which make up their platform. Budget Hero provides an interactive experience involving policy options that have been extensively researched and vetted with non-partisan government and think tank experts to enable players to objectively evaluate candidates.”

But nothing is objective when players bring their own opinions to the table. As a diehard Democrat, I first played the game with bleeding heart on sleeve. I slashed defense, fully funded education, lavished money on the NSF, built up our national infrastructure, provided healthcare for all, saved Social Security and taxed the rich like Robin Hood. I was incredibly successful, too, achieving all three of my goals (Green, Energy Independence and Competitive Advantage) while shrinking the size of government, halving the national debt and pushing back “budget bust” by nearly 40 years.

It was hard not to read this as a complete validation of my principles. A second playthrough seemed in order, to test whether a liberal bias was really built in to a game created by public radio (impossible, right?). This time, I played like the Grinch, cutting environmental subsidies, social safety nets and scientific research. I spent the savings on tanks and lower taxes for my rich friends. Lo and behold, things didn’t turn out so well. I accelerated the budget bust by six years, raised the national debt, and didn’t even manage to earn my National Security badge.

It would be foolish to argue that Budget Hero isn’t accurate simply because it aligns more closely with one of the major party platforms in the U.S. than with the other. “Objectivity” does not mean “assuming that all arguments are equally true.” That said, I don’t think Budget Hero will be changing anyone’s priorities, let alone their values.

Perhaps the message that both liberals and conservatives can take away from Budget Hero is that if the data about our debt and deficit are accurate, then we’re in a hell of a money pit.

How successfully does Budget Hero’s presentation and/or gameplay get the message across?

That depends on what you think its message is. I certainly saw information in Budget Hero that I hadn’t seen before. It presented the relative size of each section of the budget using an immediately comprehensible visual metaphor, for example.

I’m dancing around saying that I “learned” new things from the game because, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m skeptical of the accuracy and completeness of the picture it paints (and that’s coming from someone whose political prejudices weren’t even challenged). The truly strange thing is that I’m almost positive that I would react with much greater credulity were I to hear a report with exactly the same data on Marketplace. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally different about how I relate to games as opposed to radio… or perhaps my defenses are just up because I’ve been playing so many serious games with cravenly obvious agendas lately.

One thing critical to intelligent discussion of any government policy falls entirely outside Budget Hero’s purview: the question of whether a given action is politically viable. In real life, no single branch of the U.S. government can make sweeping policy changes without considering constituent special interests, public opinion, the courts and other factors that may represent significant obstacles. Accomplishing what I did in five minutes with Budget Hero would be like trying to win a write a novel while doing the tango.

An attempt to be more realistic in this respect would make Budget Hero significantly more complex, which is probably why it wasn’t done. Climate Challenge is another Flash game with very similar gameplay that does include political considerations like this. Emily Short finds Budget Hero “more streamlined and playable,” but I think Climate Challenge is the better game. Incidentally, in my next serious game analysis I’ll be looking at Democracy 2 (Mac version here), a game that attempts to model these complex dynamics by requiring players to have sufficient political capital before they can implement policy changes.

Does it make an impression?

Yes, Budget Hero definitely made an impression on me. I like the game, and I think it could be a useful tool for people who have only a vague sense of what the federal budget is, and want to fill in the blanks. The accessibility of the basic concepts would also make Budget Hero a good jumping off point for a discussion in an elementary or middle school civics class, if we bothered to teach civics any more.

As someone who listens to public radio, reads the news every day, loves games and cares deeply about politics, I’m not a very good test case for Budget Hero. The reactions from readers of the New York Times’ Freakonomics blogare doubtless equally skewed, but at least more varied:

  • Some people take the game at face value: “Great game…”; “The best part is the end, where you get to see the choices that different groups made.”
  • Others question the underlying numbers: “The assumptions are generally wrong in the system.”; “The game uses static budgeting which makes the game unrealistic past the first year, and even suspect in the first year.”
  • Still others object to perceived political biases: “The lack of a ‘repeal No Child Left Behind’ card more or less sums up this game’s biases, I think…” (Note: this card was later added and is now in the game.)

I’d like to show the game to friends with only a cursory interest in politics and see what they think.

Why was it made?

Here’s what Srini Radhakrishna, who worked on the game for American Public Media, had to say in response to some of the Freakonomics comments:

“I was part of the team at American Public Media that produced Budget Hero, and have enjoyed reading the spirited discussion and debate that the game has sparked. We hoped the game would get people talking about the federal budget, and it appears on that score it’s been a success.”

I buy it. American Public Media is an organization committed to disseminating information and helping people to understand the world around them, and they have a track record of being entertaining in the process. Since games have the potential to do all of those things, creating games is a natural step for a forward-looking news organization to take.

Budget Hero is actually just one of several interactive tools American Public Media produced during the 2008 election season. The others can be found at the Engage 08 homepage. American Public Media describes several of these tools as “serious games,” but Budget Hero is the most game-like by far.