If you ever wanted to control where your tax dollars go, now's your chance. American Public Media, known mostly for their expansive public radio work, recently updated Budget Hero, a free web-based game where the player has the future of the nation's budget in their hands.
Using data collected by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Budget Hero allows the player to look forward in time up to twenty years to see how the choices they make affect the economic future of the country. The main way the player shapes this future is through policy cards. These cards are split into the main subjects facing the country such as "Defense & Diplomacy", "Housing & Living" and even taxes. The cards cover a wide array of policy changes, from forcing military retirees to pay more for health care to pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Double clicking on a card will explain the pros and cons of this policy change and using this information the player can use as many cards as he or she wants. Most of the cards are based on real proposed budget changes, so sorry no options to tax 90% of the wealth's income or ship all those over the age of 65 to a tropical island.
The game's visuals are a mix of political cartoon and SimCity. Guiding the player is a set of three badges the player chooses at the game's start. These badges reflect the player's values, with titles such as "Health & Wellness", "National Security" and "Energy Independence." The player must make sure the policy cards they're choosing match up with their chosen value badges. However there is also a debt meter and a date when the country runs out of the ability to borrow. The game really shines as the player attempts to stay true to his or her values, while making sure their children aren't stuck working off the national debt in a Chinese coal mine.
As an informative and educational tool, Budget Hero works. The cards clearly explain the implications of say, freezing military spending or cutting federal housing assistance. Once the player is happy with their policy changes, the game calculates the player's budget using the policy cards and the player gets a look into on the future they've created, as well as the percentage of other players that chose the same policy cards. This is a great way to both see what a future in your hands would really look like and compare your opinions to others. The social gaming implications of Budget Hero are interesting, as it could become an evolving impression of what Americans think should be done with the budget.
Beyond giving the general public a look at how difficult budget management can be, Budget Hero is actually a pretty fun game. Trying to balance the player's values with the inflating debt requires the type of real world complex thinking usually found in turn based strategy games. Even the value badge system brings in a subtle version of the morality choices usually regulated to simple dark/light dichotomies in most games today. The player can see clearly, in dollars and cents, the tough decision between spending more on education for disadvantaged children or doubling funds for wildlife refuges. While some games struggle to make the player feel guilty for choosing the dark path, Budget Hero uses the weight of its real world choices to force the player think twice about all their policy choices.
Budget Hero [American Public Media]