France Touts Online Budget Game

Healthy democracies require informed citizens, but getting people to focus on complex issues can be a tough sell. Now the French government is using a populist medium to lure people into the minutiae of financial policy: le videogame.

Introduced in May by budget minister Jean-François Copé, an online game called Cyber-Budget allows users to manipulate tax and expenditure numbers in a model economy. It’s a little pedantic and text-heavy compared to your average first-person-shooter game. But it’s also a reasonably entertaining way to learn about the competing interests and trade-offs at work in the budget process.

Using games in corporate and government training is an established practice, but joystick democracy is still in its earliest phases, says Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech and founder of Persuasive Games, a company that makes games aimed at “persuasion, instruction and activism.” And although Cyberbudget is aimed at education, not citizen-driven budget plans, in the future, massive game-play could help institutions tackle big problems. “The French are at the edge of a new medium,” Bogost says. “If you pose a difficult problem to a whole lot of people, it’s better than relying on a handful of experts,” he adds, recapitulating an argument made in James Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds.

“The interactions between moving parts is complex, in budgets and elsewhere, and there is great potential for video games, or simulations, or interactive education, whatever you want to call them,” says Bogost, who is author of the book Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (MIT Press, 2006), and who also edits a blog called “Water Cooler Games” that focuses on “videogames with an agenda.” “Clearly it is folly to say all problems can be solved with games—some things are better suited to books, video or talking. But video games are built like a lot of public policy and business systems. They have a structural match that makes them a logical domain in which these problems can be discussed and presented.”

Bogost has helped design games for U.S. politicos, including the Howard Dean presidential campaign, and for companies such as ice-cream vendor Cold Stone Creamery. “I think we are going to be interacting with the world more through things like video games, and less through soundbites and video clips,” he says. Game on.

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