[In a postmortem of the serious game Budget Hero, co-creator David Rejeski examines how the game turned a seemingly mundane subject like balancing the U.S. budget into an enjoyable, and at times addictive, interactive experience.]

The experiment was the following: Could you get a 20-year old to put away the Xbox or Wii controller for 30 minutes and play with the national budget?

In May 2008, the experiment commenced. That’s when Budget Hero – the national budget game – went online, just in time for the 2008 presidential election (the game is located here). The front end of the game had to be fun, but the back end was dead serious.

The game was built upon the economic model and data used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and contained over 160 policy options that players could combine in order to support programs, raise revenues, and, more generally, to earn “badges” that reflected player priorities (for instance, to purse energy independence, strengthen health care and social programs, 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 turned any player into the budget czar. Players could wade through the budget with the swagger of a machete-wielding trailblazer, hacking away at all that government pork. It also provided anybody with 20 minutes of spare time with something rarely glimpsed in our polarized political environment – an overview of the entire federal budget across all critical policy areas where the only agenda that matters is yours.

Budget Hero launched in collaboration with American Public Media (funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting along with the Sloan and Lounsbery Foundations) and it propagated virally via Internet coverage.

In less than three weeks the game had been covered in at least 100 blogs, including Freakonomics, Boing Boing, Gizmodo, and Wired, with various sources calling it “fascinating,” “very cool,” “instructive and fun,” and even “insanely addictive.” By the first week in August, over 112,000 people had played the game, 80,000 to completion (a fairly high "play through" rate, given the subject).

Tying Together Important Issues

After the game launched, email and blog traffic pointed to an important outcome: people actually started to learn new things about how the government spends money and the often complex relationship between budget and policy:

"I had not heard of the 'cap-and-trade' system for greenhouse gas emission permits… But now that I gained awareness of this idea, I will be watching and reading the debates about this more closely.”

"You can see how your choices on issues like the war in Iraq, health care reform, taxes and the environment play out in government spending. See if you can create a budget based on your values, without busting the federal bank."

"What I like about this realistic game is that one can no longer pretend that there are no consequences to the cost of the wars."

That’s a great outcome, but what could policy makers learn from the public (assuming they wanted to listen)? Though the game is not multiplayer, it contained a feature that allowed players to compare their results with others using demographic variables such as age, education, gender, income, and political party affiliation.

About 10 percent of the players used the "compare" feature and by November, anonymous data from almost 15,000 players was sitting in a large spreadsheet.

So what did we learn?

The data was cleaned up and ported to a program called SAS (Statistical Analysis System). Here’s what came out (the complete statistical analysis is available from the author):

The game was most popular with males, Democrats, and people less than 40 years of age (50 percent of the players were under age 28). This result is not surprising, but getting this younger age group to engage was one of the primary goals of the game, so that worked. According to the self-reported data, the youngest person to try the game was ten years old. One high school teacher wrote a whole lesson plan around the game and posted it online

Over 50 percent of the players earned two or more of the ten possible badges and played multiple times. People were either masochistic or intrigued.

The most popular badges pursued in Budget Hero were: Energy Independence, Green (Environment), and Efficient Government, while the least popular badge was National Security. People still haven’t connected energy independence with national security but environment and energy make the top of the list in terms of policy issues. Who would have guessed that anybody cared about efficient government?

There was strong bipartisan support for the Green (Environment) badge and the badge to improve our social Safety Net. This is one of the most important findings and something you wouldn’t know watching (or hearing) the culture wars over these issues. Keep in mind that support for a better safety net occurred before the economic meltdown put many people into a financial freefall.

One of the most popular policies played in the game was to “bring troops home soon” and there was also strong support for “cutting pork barrel spending,” “cutting military spending by 10 percent,” and “capping and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.” Well, maybe some of the game players ended up in the White House.

Conclusion

By December, it became obvious that the game – though developed to inform the public -- could provide important insights for public policy makers. It could also shift the economics of public engagement. Many approaches to public outreach, such as town meetings or citizens’ juries, are based on a fixed cost model, i.e., the costs go up the more people you engage.

Budget Hero flipped the equation completely around. Costs for the game, like many software applications, were front-end loaded so the cost to distribute and engage people dropped continually to less than $2 per person by December (and continues to drop).

Finally, if one can wrap a game around a complex issue like the national budget and engage that many young people, we should be able to do the same with other important policy issues, from climate change to health care. The budget was about the most boring issue one could take on compared to Lost, Heroes, World of Warcraft, or playing Moto Racer on the iPhone.

Maybe the important message, which became apparent in the November election, was that more young people care about the future of our country than we think.

[David Rejeski directs the Foresight and Governance Project and Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. In 2002, he helped launch the Serious Games Initiative and in 2003, Games for Change. His work focuses on the intersection of public policy and emerging technologies. Email: [email protected]]