David Wessel spent 30 years at the Wall Street Journal, and he says he never figured out a good way to explain the federal budget. Now that he’s at the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, he’s trying again—with a video game.

The Fiscal Ship game is a collaboration between The Hutchins Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was funded by The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Richard Lousbery Foundation and built by 1st Playable Productions.

According to the game’s website, “the federal debt is higher than at any time since the end of World War II and projected to climb to unprecedented levels….Today’s tax code won’t yield enough revenue to pay for basic services of government plus the retirement and health benefits promised to the growing number of old folks.” The designers say that in creating the game they solicited advice from an advisory committee “that represents a broad spectrum of political views.”

Anyone can play the Fiscal Ship for free here. You start by getting your priorities in order. For instance, do you want to improve equality, to decrease the size of government, or to fight global warming? Once you have your goals, you figure out how to move your agenda forward. But, like real policy makers,  you also have to deal with the deficit.”Your mission is also to pick tax and spending policies that reduce the debt from projected levels so that by 2041 the debt is roughly where it is today, about 75% of GDP,” says Wessel.

The Fiscal Ship

I did okay!

I played the game once, and it was interesting so see the choices. I could cut the submarine program, increase the qualifying age for social security, and repeal Obamacare, for instance. My little ship icon floated up or sank down as a result of each choice. As games go, this game is very basic. Which is to say it’s a lot more interested in educating players than in entertaining them. But The Fiscal Ship does manage to trot out some facts and figures in a way that’s probably more engaging than reading a report from the Budget Office.

That said, I had to wonder about how and why certain choices were available in the game and how their economic impact was determined. Greg Toppo reported in a USA Today article that players are questioning some of the game’s models and assumptions, but Wessel thinks that’s good, since the game was really created to “begin a dialogue.”

Thanks to Mark DeLoura’s Level Up Report for calling our attention to this story.  Here’s a tongue-in-cheek trailer for the game:

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Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.