Budget Hero is a game in which the player makes choices about how to construct a budget for the federal government of the United States of America. Policy choices are represented by cards which describe both the effects of the decision and its impact on the budget. The game allows players to set their own policy agenda using predefined choices such as "Green," "National Security" and "Economic Stimulus."
Budget Hero allows players to enact any combination of policy changes that they wish, as long as they do not directly conflict. Many real-world issues are reflected by possible actions within the game. Despite the depth of information contained within the game, Budget Hero does not take much time to learn or play.
Players begin Budget Hero by selecting up to three goals representing their political values. These include things like "Health and Wellness," "Efficient Government" and "Energy Independence." These goals are represented by small badges on the main game screen. During the course of gameplay, decisions that further these goals will begin to fill these badges up with color (otherwise, they remain black and white).
The Main Game Screen
On the main game screen, where categories of spending in the federal budget are represented by buildings. The height of each building corresponds to the size of that portion of the federal budget. Clicking on a building brings up a row of cards, each of which lists a potential change to the budget. Cards can be put into play in order to enacts the policy change that they represent. Examples of possible changes include raising corporate taxes, cutting funding to NASA, or raising the minimum age for Medicare eligibility.
As the player plays more cards, she will see the heights of the buildings shift in response to her chosen budget. A series of dials along the bottom of the screen will provides information about the size of the federal deficit or surplus, the size of government as a percentage of the GDP, the year when the government would go bankrupt under the current budget, and the amount of federal debt as a percentage of the GDP.
Ending the Game
Once the player has made played all the cards she wishes to, she can review the impact of her budget over a 10-year period.
Budget Hero is a highly focused game in which the game's informational content takes precedence over complicated game mechanics. It is well-suited for classes that cover content including the following:
- current American policy debates around healthcare, green energy, national security, taxes, education and entitlement programs
- the American federal budget
- fiscal responsibility
- the role of government
More information about any policy option within the game is available by double-clicking the associated card. This informational screen also includes some possible pros and cons for players to weigh. Many of the issues touched on by Budget Hero are quite controversial, as current political issues tend to be. The game attempts to avoid any perception of bias by explaining in great detail where its budget projections came from, and what the purpose of the game is ("to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates").
Potentially Problematic Elements
Any game that simulates the effects of major policy changes is going to have some built-in assumptions that at least border on political biases. According to American Public Media, which produced the game during the 2008 elections, Budget Hero is fundamentally non-partisan:
- "Budget Hero seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates during this election year. Partisan messages tend to cloud the real issues at play during campaigns, and most candidates are loath to attach detailed financial impacts to solutions which make up their platform. Budget Hero provides an interactive experience involving policy options that have been extensively researched and vetted with non-partisan government and think tank experts to enable players to objectively evaluate candidates."
Whether players agree that the game is unbiased will depend on the player. Some commenters on the Budget Hero site have argued that it pushes left-wing values and ideas, while others believe precisely the opposite. Clearly, no game can validate all political ideas; "objectivity" is different than "assuming that all arguments are equally true." Whatever their politics, players and educators should be able to use Budget Hero as a conversation-starter and a window through which to view the difficult questions of what government should pay for and why—questions that may not naturally interest students when presented in other contexts.
Where to get it
The game is free and can be played online in any Flash-capable browser. It is located on the American Public Media website.