Playing a computer game that models the budget's tough choices is serious fun: an exercise in participatory democracy
Can a 20 year old find a way out of America's budget deadlock? If a new game that recently debuted online is any indication, the answer is yes. The solution to wearying battles and posturing around the debt crisis could lie, in part, with an unlikely source: a computer game.
Budget Hero 2.0 – the new national budget game – launched just over a week ago, with a bipartisan stamp of approval from Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican, Alabama) and Senator Mark Udall (Democrat, Colorado).
The front end of the game is fun, but the back end is deadly serious. The game, which is a nonprofit project developed as a collaboration between the science and technology innovation programme at the Wilson Centre, where I work, and Public Insight Network of American Public Media (APM), is based on the economic model and data used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It contains over 100 policy options that players can combine in order to support programmes, raise revenues or put limits on future spending. Players earn "badges" that reflect their political priorities (for instance, to pursue energy independence, strengthen national security, or increase economic competitiveness). For each policy, the game provides the pros and cons, along with the sources of all supporting data and opinions.
The game turns any player into a budget Thor. Players could wade through the budget with the swagger of a hammer-wielding leader, destroying all that government pork.
But the experiment goes beyond fun. People actually learn new things about how the government spends money and the relationship between budget and policy. "The complexity of the issues became much more apparent," said one player from San Antonio, Texas. "I realised that the decision-making process is a lot more extensive than playing black and white values."
Players also get away from ideological posturing and self-interest in order to achieve a balanced budget. Liberals find themselves forgoing complete government-sponsored healthcare for more modest programmes. A defence contractor who played the game even said that "cutting the defence budget was the best decision I made." Americans realise the need for compromise much better than their political leaders, who are bent on reelection at all costs, especially as the presidential campaign intensifies.
Can policy-makers learn from citizen-players (assuming they want to listen)? Though the game is not multiplayer, it contains a feature that allow players to compare their results with others using demographic variables such as age, education, gender, income and political party affiliation. These insights for policy-makers are free, sitting in a spreadsheet. Budget Hero flips the equation completely around. Costs for the game, like many software applications, are front end-loaded, so the cost to get people involved is continuously dropping.
With Budget Hero, reality is turned on its head. While politicians continue to treat the federal budget like a game that remove themselves further from reality; by playing Budget Hero 2.0, ordinary citizens are seeing the budget reality for what it is. Citizens have a greater capacity to understand budgetary issues than their representatives in Congress often give them credit for. When given real numbers and information, they are willing to make tradeoffs – even when those choices run contrary to their own interests.
What's more, the budget is about the most boring topic one could take on compared to Lost, Heroes, World of Warcraft, or playing Moto racer on the iPhone. If one can wrap a game around a complex issue like the national budget and engage 25,000 people a day, we should be able to do the same with other important policy issues, from climate change to healthcare.
Serious games are one example of what participatory democracy could look like. Some of them dissect complex issues: from food crises in war zones, like the UN humanitarian video game Food Force; to dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians in the ambitious game Peacemaker. Thanks to a collaborative learning process in which players confront their political perspectives, they have to justify their decisions to their peers. Collective deliberation leads to individual responsibility as participants are fully aware that the decisions are theirs and that no one forces their hand.
The beauty of serious games is that they recreate, 2,500 years after Athenian democracy, the conditions for direct citizen's participation in 21st century America, and beyond.
As our government borrows at a rate of more than $40,000 per second, waiting for policy-makers to agree on a budget deal is a luxury the country can no longer afford. In the long run, collective problem-solving might just be one way of unravelling political controversies. Just brainstorm over any set of contemporary issues: the financial meltdown and its social ramifications, nuclear crises and the revolutions erupting in North Africa. The information revolution has handed us tools to reorganise how we think and govern – we should use them.