Unpersuasive Games

Budget Hero is a game in which the player gets to select a series of policies on spending in the US: taxation policies, social security management, defense, health and human services, housing, education, research, and the ever-popular miscellaneous. In structure, it reminded me a bit of Red Redemption’s Climate Challenge game (where you similarly play cards to affect European policy and budgeting), but Budget Hero is more streamlined and playable.

That said, I had some issues with it.

First issue: this was probably necessary to keep the game playable and restrict the number of options to a reasonable set, but the cards one can play to affect the budget are fairly limited. Many of them are based on proposals by various political candidates, and I suppose in an election year it makes sense to focus on those; but I still had the sense of being fairly constrained.

Second issue: by excluding from the simulation all ramifications other than budget results, the game does a disservice to the complexity of some of these arguments. For instance, it’s tempting and easy to pull troops out of Iraq instantly; though the card suggests that there might be negative results, nothing bad happens in the game. As it happens, I do think we should end the Iraq war as soon as we can, but the fact that I was allowed to enact my political agenda without any in-game ramifications made me a little suspicious.

Third issue: inasmuch as this persuades at all, it does so through reading and not through the mechanisms of gameplay. The player doesn’t really get to see how various proposals interact with one another. We’re just told that various think-tanks have come up with various projections.

Fourth issue: the gameplay, qua play, isn’t terribly sophisticated; it’s less a game than a sort of simulator in which you get to tweak around and try out your favorite scenarios in a very limited way. I was reminded more of those primary-outcome-projection widgets than of other games.

I think quite a few of these problems arise because the game is trying to be politically neutral (though in practice it still feels liberal to me, and I say this as one in sympathy with much of the current progressive agenda), so they want to avoid saying one way or another what the humanitarian and balance-of-power costs would be for big decisions such as rapid withdrawal from Iraq. And from a play perspective, there isn’t much challenge: you just pick cards until you’ve found enough that satisfy the goals you’ve adopted (such as “national security” or “competitive advantage”).

Anyway, I came away feeling I hadn’t learned anything I didn’t already know, and hadn’t had my preconceptions especially challenged.

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