Science and Technology Innovation Program

Political Perceptions: Budget Cutting, the Videogame

Oct 25, 2012
By

In a couple of weeks, the election will be over – and there’ll be even more talk about the fiscal cliff and how to restrain future deficits.  Big-company chief executives are weighing in, as we report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

But so are ordinary citizens – and not just by voting or by responding to proliferating public-opinion polls: There’s a computer game called “Budget Hero,” a foundation-funded venture of American Public Media and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, that allows you to try to attack the deficit yourself.

The game has been played more than 1.3 million times so far, sometimes more than once by the same person.  With Congressional Budget Office scoring, players made choices about where to cut and where to spend more, who tax more and who to tax less, all the while trying to earn merit badges that reflect different sets of values, such as “national security” or “green” or “competitiveness.”   The center’s chief executive, former Rep. Jane Harman, is urging every member of Congress to link to the game on his or her website so citizens better understand the choices the country faces.

The average age of those who play the game – based on those who provide demographic information – is 32 or 33, and they are spread across the income spectrum. “Our biggest gaps are under-18 and over-65,” says David Rejeski, director of the center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program, who says there’s lately been an effort to reach out to high-school students.  This is a computer game, so about three-quarters of those who play the game are male. About 70% of the people who start the game play all the way to the end. (Full disclosure: This reporter did a brief stint at the Center while writing a book on the budget.)

“It’s often the first time people have ever seen the whole budget,” sasy Mr. Rejeski, referring to the game’s opening screen which shows several office towers, their heights in proportion to the share of federal spending they represents.  “One thing they learn,” he says, “is that they have to move a lot of money around.”   The game offers the usual popular options, such as cutting foreign aid, but that doesn’t make much of a dent in the deficit.

We thought it might be interesting to see what Budget Hero players choose most often as they play the game, so we asked:

Raising the ceiling on the Social Security payroll tax and raising the Social Security retirement age have been consistently popular.  So has reforming and simplifying the tax code by eliminating loopholes and tax breaks, an option – modeled on one offered by the Simpson Bowles deficit-reduction committee — which the game scores as raising $1.2 trillion over 10 years. And, especially in the recent special election version of the game, another popular choice is raising prescription drug costs for wealthy seniors.

“There is,” says Mr. Rejeski, “a sense in the game that people want to get the wealthy to contribute more.”   For more on what game-players are choosing, see the Budget Hero Weekly Report.

This article orginally appeared in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire blog.

Image courtesy of Almonroth via Wikimedia Commons.

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