Budget Hero, a game about debt we should play

Budget Hero

President Obama stated in his Debt Crisis Address that playing with our budget is a “dangerous game” we should not be playing. Hopefully this blog post will encourage Americans to play this “game for change” instead.

It’s always been an uphill battle for those creating games with learning objectives. The developers of these titles must take on the challenge of combining complex subject matter with motivating and engaging game play. David Rejeski, the Director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, sees tackling the federal budget as the “Mount Everest of serious games”. Undeterred, he led the timely release of the 2.0 version of the popular game “Budget Hero” last week. What took version 1.0 three months to achieve, Budget Hero 2.0 has surpassed in a little over 10 days, reaching over 100,000 plays. To date, Budget Hero version 1.0 has been played over 830,000 times.

I spent some time on the phone with David Rejeski to better understand the origins of Budget Hero and what unique obstacles he faced while creating a sophisticated game with balanced data that appeals to gamers and non-gamers alike.

Prior to Budget Hero 1.0, David has seen several attempts to create budget games. Unfortunately, most of them were no more than dressed up, interactive spread sheets. He felt that it was possible to create a game that would engage and educate the American public and would spur fair and bipartisan discussion. He received all the inspiration he would need in 2006 when he played a game called “Mass Balance”, created by a handful of graduate students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mass Balance was created to challenge Massachusetts residents to balance the budget at a time when the state was running a large deficit – yet David and Ben Sawyer of the Serious Games Initiative wanted to see if this idea could be expanded and applied on a national level. Together with the original game creators, 360 Kids, American Public Media, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and with funding from the Lounsbery Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Budget Hero 1.0 was born and launched in May 2008.

Budget Hero is a “policy flight simulator” of sorts. The goal is to test the budget, apply your values to the system, and see if you can avoid worsening our debt or crashing the economy. You can gain “badges” in a handful of categories like the “Tea Party”, Health + Wellness, and Energy Independence. Because balancing the budget is far from simple, the data shows that 60% of the players will go through the game multiple times to test new ideas and achieve better scores. Other than trying to get better scores or unlock achievements, why has Budget Hero 2.0 outdone its predecessor?

Rejeski chalks it up to the “exquisite” timing of game’s release. The national budget crisis is the topic of discussion right now and in this new era of Twitter and Facebook, sharing is huge. This perfect mixture is the key to Budget Hero 2.0’s reach and this new version allows players to instantly share their results with their friends and leave comments on the game’s page. Players can also see how they stack up with others in their party affiliation, age range, or location.

While Budget Hero 2.0 is still in its launch phase, David Rejeski revealed plans to integrate the game into more classroom settings. Feedback on the game’s first version often came from educators who single-handedly created curricula around the game. To serve educators better, the Wilson Center and American Public Media will work over the summer to support classrooms in more meaningful and standardized ways. As more data and feedback comes form this new version, Games for Change will update you and see if Rejeski and his team can hit the 1 million plays mark.

Play Budget Hero now and feel free to share your final score sheets with us in the comments below!

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