Honey, I Shrunk The Deficit!

Computer games offer citizens the chance to see how government works and the trade-offs involved in policy making.
by | December 2003

Step aside, and let me show you how it's done: I'm going to balance the budget.

My tool in this exercise will be the Utah Budget Simulator, a game devised by Utah's Office of Planning and Budget. After downloading the game software from the state's Web site, I click through a series of ledger sheets briefing me on the myriad issues I must resolve. Before I type in each of my decisions, I can click a button that brings up a picture of the governor offering his recommendations, or another that shows what the fictitious Standard Deseret Tribune is saying about my performance.

I'm still trying to get my mind around the $78 million deficit when a "news flash" pops up telling me that the U.S. Congress has reduced social services block grants to states. The projected deficit swells to $81 million. Ignoring a sign that reads "No Pork," I reject the governor's advice and increase the state's revenue forecast by 5 percent. That shrinks the projected deficit to $31 million. I know how the game is played.

Then a second news flash tells me that state colleges need $45 million to fix computer problems, and a corpulent character in dark glasses pops up to remind me to take care of his special project. I plow ahead, but while taking a break from boning up on Utah's "weighted pupil unit" formula for funding education, I make the mistake of reading the "newspaper." Under the headline "Utah Out of Balance--Conte Budget Preposterous," it cites "economic experts" saying my revenue assumptions are overly optimistic. Lambasting me for breaking the law by trying to slash the state legislature's budget, it quotes an unnamed legislative leader saying that "forces are mounting" to remove me from office. I retreat from the revenue ploy and the legislative cut. The deficit balloons to $111 million.

Hmm. This may not be as easy as I thought. But that, of course, is exactly the point. "We wanted to show that this is hard," says Lynne Ward, director of Utah's budget office and one of the game's creators. "It is complex, and there are many decisions you have to make."

The Utah budget simulation ( is one of a small but growing number of experiments that seek to use computer games to teach people how government works. Budget games have proven popular not only in Utah but in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Texas as well. Government agencies and news organizations in Savannah, Georgia, and Seattle offer games that focus on water conservation ( and In Pennsylvania, legislative Republicans and Democratic Governor Edward Rendell this year prepared competing online tools to let taxpayers assess the impact of proposed tax-law changes ( And in New York, a grassroots group has created online games letting citizens register their ideas for redeveloping the World Trade Center site ( and highlighting corruption in the Brooklyn Supreme Court (www.gotham

If this keeps up, the word "gaming" soon could come to mean something more to state and local officials than lotteries, slot machines and Indian-run casinos. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., has launched a "Serious Games Initiative," which seeks to encourage development of games simulating policy making and management. In a workshop it convened earlier this year, game designers and policy makers brainstormed about games involving management of parks, high schools and hospitals, and David Rejeski, director of the center's Foresight and Governance Project, says he hopes to see other games that would help citizens and government officials learn how to orchestrate disaster relief, make better health care choices and grapple with urban sprawl. "The goal of electronic-based gaming," he explains, "is not just to raise a generation of digitally ambidextrous kids but to create intellectually ambidextrous decision-makers as well."


Games are effective communication tools because they are fun and engaging. Moreover, advocates believe they may leave a deeper and more lasting impression than brochures, public service advertisements and traditional news stories because they turn viewers into active participants in gathering information, rather than passive recipients of it. A game designed by Boston's WBUR-radio in Boston during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign demonstrates their allure. Rather than spoon-feed canned position statements to its Web users, the public- radio station invited them to scroll through statements by five unnamed candidates on 10 issues, each time selecting the statement closest to their own views. At the end, the station showed them which candidates agreed with them on each issue.

The game may not have made deciding how to vote any easier; when I took the quiz, I was surprised to find that I agreed with an independent candidate on one issue, the Green Party candidate on three, the Republican on three, the Democrat on one and the Libertarian on two. But the game sparked my curiosity, forced me to think more carefully about my own views and plumb the candidates' statements for subtle distinctions.

Games also can give players an opportunity to weigh in on issues. In 2001, the Topeka Capital-Journal created the "Topeka City Council Survivor" game ( Modeled after the "reality-TV" program of that name, the game called on Web users to symbolically vote one member off the city council each week. Designed to hold a spotlight on a council that had become rife with bickering, the game sparked a lively online discussion about how council members should behave. And while it lacked the finality of a recall election, it was a big hit in some circles. Players included a virtual "Who's Who" of Topeka government and business leaders, according to the newspaper.

Not surprisingly, the game wasn't popular with council members. "The job of a newspaper, you would think, is to report the news and not create it," fumed Topeka city council member Jim Gardner, who was the third of 10 officials to be figuratively drummed out of the council. But proponents say that misses an important point: Citizens increasingly want to participate in decision making rather than be treated as mere spectators, and technology makes that possible, they contend. "Now, with the Internet, [journalists] have the power to not only start stories but then capture how the world interacts with it, reacts to it and changes it," argue Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Hypergene. Bowman and Willis presented their views at a 2001 workshop sponsored by the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. The gathering, which explored how news organizations could create games to convey information, was entitled, "Playing the News."

While the Topeka Capital-Journal designed its game with satire in mind, the Everett Herald, just north of Seattle, offers its games in earnest. Its "Waterfront Renaissance" game ( let Web users weigh in on urban renewal projects by placing icons representing their preferred land uses on city maps. The project was crude; players were not forced to consider the cost or feasibility of their proposals, and the game's graphics didn't allow them to do any actual designing. But sponsors were convinced it made a difference, since many of the players' preferences later showed up the city's actual redevelopment plans. That led the Herald to join two media partners in offering a more elaborate game called "Fix Your Commute" ( In that game, players peruse maps and identify which transportation problems they think are most in need of corrective action. Then, they decide how to pay for the road improvements they want. Only plans that are fully financed are accepted, and players get a bonus if they address regional needs rather than their own parochial concerns.

All this suggests games could become a new channel of communication between government and citizens. "Games like this can serve almost as a surrogate public hearing process," notes Jan Schaffer, the former executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which underwrote the Waterfront project. The Pew Center, which encouraged journalists to become more actively involved in seeking solutions to public issues, closed its doors in May after 10 years in operation. Schaffer now runs an organization called J-Lab at the University of Maryland, which seeks to encourage games and other forms of interactive journalism.

J-Lab ( exists in part because Americans take games-- whether football or fiscal policy--very seriously. When Minnesota Public Radio put a budget game on its Web site (, some 7,000 people played. But they created 11,000 budgets, suggesting that many put in more than a casual effort. The hard work appeared to change more than a few minds. In a survey, many players said they went into the game opposed to tax increases but came out convinced that the state needed new revenues. "When people have to make choices, they don't stick with their ideological positions," notes Michael Skoler, the station's managing director of news.


Such games may really make people think more clearly about the ramifications of different policies. But what if games subtly manipulate players to reach predetermined conclusions? You only have to listen to complaints from parents whose teenagers steal cars, drive recklessly and even visit prostitutes in the popular video game "Grand Theft Auto" to know that there are concerns about the influence games might have over people. Some analysts see the potential for subtle coercion in policy games, too. "Only a few can penetrate the black box and understand what is inside," warned Paul Starr, a Princeton University social scientist and co-editor of the American Prospect, in a 1994 review of popular games such as SimCity. "As a result, those who have technical authority over the black boxes acquire an extraordinary degree of influence in the political process."

I decide to test Starr's theory on MassBalance (, a budget game created under the guidance of Richard Moore, a state senator in Massachusetts. Moore, a Democrat, describes himself as "relatively conservative." When I try to balance the budget by raising state taxes, the results are troublesome: I'm told my budget worsens a recession, hurts retailers near the New Hampshire border and exacerbates a loss in economic productivity. When I revise the budget by making steep spending cuts and eschewing tax increases, the results are less harmful. (Yes, lack of funding for the corrections system helps set off a prison riot, but I'm told the system survives.)

I infer from these results that Senator Moore leans against tax increases. But the lawmaker says the only complaints he has received about the game have come from anti-tax groups. They have a point: The game gives players only the option of raising taxes or holding them at their current level. In response to complaints, Moore has promised to add options to his next version of the game that will enable players to reduce taxes or even eliminate the state income tax entirely. "I think it will be disastrous," he says, "but we'll put in what the libertarians want."

Far from reflecting badly on a game, controversy over its parameters is actually a healthy development, according to educational researchers. Some experts suggest that most learning comes not from games themselves but from the thinking, discussion and further study they inspire. "Any game is, at best, a simulation," notes Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. "You have to play it, discuss whether it is realistic or not, and consult other data to confirm its validity." Squire formerly worked on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Games-to-Teach project, which develops educational video games. "The bottom line," he says, "is that the game alone is much less important than the game plus social interaction plus additional research."

For the moment, few policy games are as technically sophisticated as those produced by the entertainment industry. But that may change. The Woodrow Wilson Center's "Serious Games Initiative" envisions a time in the not-too-distant future when policy games will be just as sophisticated as top-of-the-line entertainment games, and universities and government agencies will use them to train a new generation of government decision makers. The model for what they hope will be any number of new games is Virtual U (, which puts players in the shoes of an imaginary university president.


Virtual U goes far beyond the typical budget simulation game. Consisting of several hundred thousand lines of computer code, it allows players in a few hours to explore secondary and tertiary effects of a couple of years' worth of actions they might take as academic administrators. What's more, they can customize it by adjusting everything from the size of the faculty and student body to the cost of maintaining campus roads and buildings. If you don't believe it's a serious game, consider this: It took four people two years to build it, at a cost of more than $1 million. But the investment has paid off. Virtual U has been used in some 25 master's and Ph.D. programs to train more than 3,000 aspiring university administrators, and some 50,000 copies have been downloaded from the Internet.

The game gives administrators something that has been sorely lacking in the public sector--"an understanding of the big picture," argues the Woodrow Wilson Center's David Rejeski. "That understanding, coupled with the ability to rapidly test hypotheses, run multiple experiments and fail softly--without a loss of life or loss of face-- would go a long way in improving public policy and management," he says.

State and local officials soon will have an opportunity similar to what Virtual U has given college administrators. BreakAway Games Ltd., a Baltimore software developer, recently started designing a game that will enable local officials to practice dealing with crises such as terrorist attacks or environmental disasters. "Incident Commander" will use technology that BreakAway has developed for the military to create games depicting real geographic locations. (The next time American soldiers are deployed abroad, they'll be able to use this game to familiarize themselves with the place they will be landing-- down to the layout of city streets.)

BreakAway's federal funding will enable it to distribute the homeland security software, free of charge, to 18,000 municipalities. But any city that is interested will be able to purchase a customized version that will show its actual streets and buildings. "As long as we have satellite data, we will be able to recreate a 10-square block area in 48 hours," says BreakAway President Deborah Tillett.

But who will pay for high-level policy games? The most likely candidates so far appear to be private foundations and the federal government. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, for instance, financed Virtual U and the U.S. Department of Justice is paying for the homeland security game. But advocates say that state and local governments could get into the act, too. "I'd look for seed money from the federal government, and I'd look for ways to collaborate across boundaries," says Colonel Casey Wardynski, director of the U.S. Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis and Army Game Project. He oversees "America's Army" (www.americasarmy. com/), a game that leads players through realistic simulations of Army life, including basic training. After the game first came out, on July 4, 2002, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approached the Army to add a component that would teach players basic first aid information. The Army, eager to defray its costs while enriching the game and performing a public service, jumped at the idea. As a result, players now receive basic instruction in first aid.

To those who are dubious about the value of the project, Wardynski has some interesting figures. More than 2 million Americans have played "America's Army" in its first year and a half of operation, and more than 1 million have completed its basic training components. In all, Americans have logged 24 million hours playing the game. To get that kind of exposure using public service advertisements and other traditional forms of publicity would have cost the Army $120 million, compared to the $10 million it spent creating and distributing the game, Wardynski notes. And the exposure has been high in quality. In a recent survey, the Army found that 19 percent of young Americans have a favorable impression of the Army thanks to the game, making it the single most effective public-relations tool in the military's arsenal.

Of course, the Army has one thing that few state and local governments have today: plenty of resources. It may be a stretch to imagine a governor or mayor willing to risk the public criticism that might come from using precious taxpayer dollars to finance a game. Then again, maybe they should try some games themselves, and see what lessons they bring away from them.

After despairing of finding any solution to Utah's budget dilemmas, I finally knuckle down to making some hard decisions. It takes me almost an hour, and the cuts I make are deep and painful. And, when I feel I can cut no more, I swallow hard and impose modest increases in both the sales and income taxes. With trepidation, I brace myself to be excoriated by the Standard Deseret Tribune. Sure enough, the headline blares: "Tax Freedom Day Gets Further Away." But buried in the imaginary newspaper story are some surprisingly kind words. My tax decisions, my erstwhile critics concede, were "a gutsy move."


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