Budget games largely lack human engagement

Budget Game, New YorkNancy Scola of TechPresident recently excoriated a budget calculator put out by NY Governor Patterson, primarily on the ground that it’s “more a dull-edged hatchet than a scalpel” and ignores revenue options. Strangely, though, she ignores the glaring fact that the tool is painfully meaningless to any normal taxpayer. Never mind how ugly it is (though that matters); its numbers are not only grossly general but also inhumanly abstract.

Scola also mentions the Obama-Biden tax calculator, which presents an interesting contrast. It, too, is a calculator — raw numbers stacked up — but it has the distinct engagement advantage of being about your money. Its designers don’t need to provide context or background; presumably, you know exactly what another $1,000 in your pocket would mean.

Such lame attempts at public education (or, as Scola argues, “pretend participation”) ignores the basic problem that for most taxpayers, issues of government taxes and spending are emotional, not rational, and not because we are innumerate but because such systems are too big and too remote for most of us to comprehend. This is a point that Prof. Henry Jenkins makes in his essay, “Complete Freedom of Movement,” which contrasts the play spaces of boys and girls. Whereas a game like Sim City allows players to mold physical territory, in girls’ games and stories like Harriet the Spy “the mapping of the space was only the first step in preparing the ground for a rich saga of life and death, joy and sorrow – the very elements that are totally lacking in most simulation games.”

Stated differently: cutting $10M from the state’s Department of Mental Health means something real for real human beings. The essence of a true public policy debate is to capture human reality in the discussion, not abstract it into numbers. (To those who argue that this would merely lead to an exploding debt, it’s up to deficit hawks to describe the issue as compelling drama, not formal logic).

Budget Game - MAA different contrast can be made with the Massachusetts Budget Calculator Game, Question 1 edition. As in the original version of this spreadsheet game, each top-level line item is explained with ample text — which requires players to be both numerate and literate. This “game” is no better than Patterson’s effort — except that the point isn’t really to balance the budget. The point is to show just how absurd repealing the budget is. It turns out that it’s pretty much impossible to eliminate the income tax without destroying practically all of the Massachusetts government, which an overwhelming majority of voters ultimately agreed was reckless. Rhetorically, then, the Globe’s budget game was less a simulation and more an exercise in futility, much like the message embedded in Ian Bogost’s “editorial games” for the New York Times.

Budget HeroBut what about a game that actually helps the player understand a budget and make difficult tradeoffs? Possibly the best example out there is Budget Hero from American Public Media. (Read Ben Medler’s review). Among its stronger features is the ability to choose particular values that your budget should maximize (e.g. “national security” or “energy independence”). As your budget fulfills those values, the corresponding “badge” fills up. It’s a relatively elegant way to convey the idea that budgets aren’t just abstract numbers but expressions of our collective social values — moral and meaningful choices writ large. It also doesn’t hurt that the design is colorful, noisy, and generally attractive.

Most intriguingly, Budget Hero also compares your results with peers (assuming, as Medler points out, that the players are truthful). It’s a step in the right direction towards an engaged and informed public dialog.

G4C2008: Jim Gee vs. Eric Zimmerman

Gee: “World of complex systems that is biting us, and biting us bad.” e.g. peak oil => biofuel => no water / no food => failed states => end of global economy

Zimmerman: industry (19th century), information (20th), the Ludic Century (21st century systems)

Gee: Games not terribly good at delivering information, but at novel experiences: seeing the world in new ways. Continue reading

Soul of the Machine: Awakening the moral conscience of impersonal systems

Ever since Ultima IV showed us how computer games might embrace virtue, I’ve longed for similar titles with moral depth. Over a year ago, Kent Quirk awoke me to the power that computer games offer and why they are so important right now. At a local Games for Change meetup, Kent showed off Melting Point, a game about climate change. What impressed me about Melting Point was that Kent wasn’t proselytizing for a particular policy or worldview but rather hoping players would understand the interplay of complex systems (climate and economy) and make up their own minds about what, if anything, we should do about it.

This made me realize that computer games can merge two important features — player choice and systems-modeling — to achieve something even more powerful: nurturing morally aware systems-thinking. In other words, I began to see games as a tool to enable people to see that the complex systems around us — whether global trade or ocean ecosystems — have moral consequences, and that we aren’t just idle observers but actors both within and over those systems.

And it’s at this very moment in human history that we, as a species, must learn to see ourselves as moral agents within systems.

Never before has humanity had the power to destroy each other and the world as we know it, whether in clouds of radiation or of carbon dioxide. Never before has so much of humanity been at the mercy not of human tyrants and local lords but of machine code and faraway tribunals. The world, as Max Weber predicted, is becoming an iron cage of systems and bureaucracies beyond human ken.

It’s beyond our common understanding because homo sapiens didn’t evolve to naturally grasp large, complex systems but rather small networks of people. As psychologists are steadily learning, scruples aren’t merely nice but actually hard-wired into our brains. Ask someone whether it’s right to push a big man in front of a runaway train to save the lives of five bystanders, and parts of our brains begin firing to tell us, “no.” But ask whether it’s OK to throw a switch that decides between the fate of a man on one track versus that of five on the other, and those same neurons stay quiet.

So our genetic code instructs us to treat our face-to-face relationships as potentially moral, but our innate moral sense may not extend into our systemic or mediated relationships. Bringing chicken soup to our sick neighbor strikes us as self-evidently virtuous, but shaping our nation’s health care policy — not so much, at least not until it begins affecting us personally. Viewing policy as a structure that embodies collective morality is learned, not instinctual.

Computer games offer at least two possible responses to our collective human predicament. First, they can open players’ eyes to the moral implications of systems by experimenting with them and witnessing the results. Games might offer moments of reflection and of epiphany, connecting personal morality with systemic awareness. A player might see how tweaking health care policies affects a family’s lives, or how environmental regulation could shape the destiny of a polar bear. Games might lead people to begin to see a soul within the machine.

And perhaps systems might begin to learn lessons from game design. Why must the computer systems that exercise more and more control over our daily lives be morally inert? If computer games — mere software — can lead players to weep, perhaps the mechanization of our world needn’t be soulless. If a global society demands that our interpersonal relations become abstracted into an iron cage of systems, can’t we re-envision such systems as a purposeful tool for realizing our collective moral vision?

Computer games won’t solve the problems that face humanity and our planet. But media, from cuneiform to newspapers to film, have always assisted humanity to reach new levels of moral self-realization and galvanize moral action. How fortuitous it may prove that computer games with their unique capacity for choice and systems-modeling should arise at this critical juncture of our evolution.

– Gene Koo