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Setting Sail on The Fiscal Ship

Kyle Mitchell
Setting Sail on The Fiscal Ship


Navigating the Nebula

Think fast: how much of an impact would eliminating the cap on the Social Security payroll tax have on the nation’s federal budget?

Answer: A hefty move like that could completely close Social Security’s projected solvency gap. That means increasing revenue and thereby lowering budget spending on the order of around 100 billion dollars.   

If you didn’t have an immediate answer, no one can blame you. The federal budget is an incredibly complex system. Even experts don’t know the full measure of every policy proposal and its potential impact on the federal budget.

It’s a herculean task, understanding the federal budget. But you can take solace in this fact: the federal budget is a system. Like all systems, it is ruled by multiple forces—the forces of revenue and expense. Like all systems, it has many discrete states that could exist, depending on the choice of policies that inform the budget process. Most importantly, like all systems, the federal budget can be modeled.

Games and Systems

One such model of the federal budget is the game The Fiscal Ship, presented by the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institute, and developed by 1st Playable Productions.

You may be wondering: Why use a game, of all things, to model such a complex idea with incredibly far-reaching fiscal and social consequences? Easy: all games are systems in and of themselves—from hopscotch to World of Warcraft. This idea isn’t something new, by the way. Games being an assemblage of parts comprising a system is, in fact, ancient. In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, games scholar Jane McGonigal notes that it was nearly 2500 years ago when the Greek historian Herodotus looked at the ancient dice games of the Lydians and saw them as “large-scale systems, designed to organize masses of people and make an entire civilization more resilient[i].”

Part of the game is changing the system. When executed well, games allow easy and safe manipulation of the actors involved in the system and encourage exploration into the other outcomes that may be possible. In this regard, games are uniquely suited to teaching high-level concepts that arise from the interplay of actors or elements within extremely large or complex systems. In fact, in Backlund and Hendrix’s 2013 metareview of studies performed on games and education—one of the largest available literature reviews in the field—it was found that 29 out 40 studies concluded that games had a positive effect on learning and retention[ii].

Let’s now take a look at the federal budget as presented by The Fiscal Ship.

A Game of You

When you first launch The Fiscal Ship, you must set your own agenda. What kind of nation do you want to live in? Do you want to be a champion for global sustainability, or a fiscal hawk? Maybe you want to see the outcomes of the policies endorsed by our current administration, or test the agenda of political candidates up for election.

To accomplish your agenda and win the game, you must select policies—policies that are actually currently being discussed in Congress, like those concerning Social Security. You are presented with an abundance of options, and with those, you attempt to meet your goals and steer the ship back to safety.

It isn’t enough to just throw options at you, however. You should be able to concretely see the outcomes of your decisions, right? The only way to accomplish that is to have honest data that can be used to project those various outcomes. In the case of The Fiscal Ship, all data regarding the federal budget was supplied by the Congressional Budget Office and validated by The Brookings Institute. The options included in this model of the federal budget are based on the actual facts policy makers are working with. Once you choose a policy to incorporate in the budget, you are allowed to see the effects of that policy—visualized by a newly charted line that suggests either a move toward safety, or a move that may sink the ship. By selecting a policy, you can see a brief explanation of what the policy targets specifically and also rational political arguments either for or against it. This game mechanic encourages you to assume different viewpoints and experiment with different policies to see their various outcomes. For younger audiences, these exercises in viewpoint sharing—called “theory of mind” in psychology—are crucial to development. Theory of mind is considered the basis of social understanding, and the root of one of the most important traits humans possess: empathy.

After navigating the ship to safety, you will know if a certain policy supports a fiscal hawk agenda, or if a 5% tax on the extremely wealthy would significantly increase revenues. You will know if you can manage to support global sustainability and expansions of national defense, or if the two kinds of policies are simply incompatible. Most importantly, you will know that, in reality, relief for some groups of citizens may mean hardships for others—perhaps one of the most important lessons to be found here.

All Aboard

The Fiscal Ship has a very simple goal behind it: don’t sink. But it’s never quite as simple as that, is it? At its heart, The Fiscal Ship is about playing with the model until you recognize that the easiest path to victory is often fraught with weighty consequences. It’s about recognizing that you may have no choice but to accept those consequences if you want to remain steadfast in what you believe. And it’s about finding your beliefs in a tumultuous sea of possibilities.

So how does eliminating the cap on the Social Security payroll tax sound now? What are you, as captain of the ship, going to do to win? How much can you stand to lose? What decisions are you willing to live with?

You’re going to have to set sail to find out. 

[i] McGonigal, Jane. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York, NY. Penguin.

[ii] Backlund, P. and Hendrix, M. (2013). Educational games - are they worth the effort?, Fifth International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (VS-Games). London, UK.

About the Author

Kyle Mitchell

Kyle Mitchell

Serious Games Initiative Research Assistant/Intern
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