Mark Van Horn – Using Computer Games to Simulate Policy Problems in the United States

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“Using Computer Games to Simulate Policy Problems in the United States”

The U.S. Government should invest $100 million dollars into the Department of Commerce to create a new organization chartered with producing popular, entertaining, and informative games that simulate the complex decisions facing local, state, and federal governing bodies.
Computer and video gaming represents a new kind of experiential learning through the simulation of complex systems which allows the modeling of behaviors. Games are everywhere, unleashed by the power of handheld smart-phones, video gaming consoles, and computers; one of the definitive aspects of our culture is how common and diverse games have become.

Massive online multiplayer role playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Entropia Universe, among others, model whole worlds, represent communities, and link people together in networks and economies that are huge and complex. The power of these games is in allowing people to project themselves into a simulated world and test various choices and ideas. What a powerful way to inform and teach the public about the difficult public policy decisions facing legislatures, government organizations, and courts.
Games simulating the US and based on actual statistics and rules, could provide real data to people to play with and result in a greater awareness of policy decisions while creating a greater spread of information and understanding among the public because people have played out their ideas and the ideas of others while understanding the rules impacting those decisions.
Citizens could start out rich, poor, or middle-class; try conservative, libertarian, socialist, or other competing ideas out in a make-believe world, and do it over and over again to see which organization of society leads to the best outcome for themselves and for others. In the process of playing, people would become experienced. This could have a real impact in the willingness of people to cut back entitlement programs, raise taxes, and determine service levels because they could better weigh multiple options in simulation. It could increase participative democracy through simulation.
The creation of a system of games representing problems such as how to balance the budget at the state and federal level could provide people a forum for experimentation and interaction.
Such an organization would need to be allowed to experiment and to fail. Many major games cost as much as small movies to develop, often toping ten million dollars. The organization would have to contract with major development firms for production as the talent for producing such a gaming system is not likely to look at government service positively. The culture would need to be collaborative, incorporating scholars and developers from ludology, the social sciences, and humanities.
In an age when we appear to disagree about everything and statistics can be produced for every side, the system is so complex that people struggle to understand it and to make informed decisions. Games can change that, bringing people together, providing new sources of data for analysis of public opinion and thought, and educating citizens about the rules of economics and public policy.


Read other finalist essays for the GovLoop/NASPAA Scholarship.

– Evan White – “Promise Neighborhoods for a Promising Future”

– Mauricio Cifuentes – “The Social Innovation Fund: Implementing Effective Bottom-up Solutions”

– Jay Sher – “Federal R&D Prizes for Technological Investment and Innovation”

– Danny Vasconcellos – “Government Getting it Right: The GAO”

– Kevin Sonoff – “Primary and Secondary Education: The Path to Recovery”

– Maggie Healy – “Funding the Information Age, Beyond Infrastructure”

– Alex Luboff – “A Fiscal, Social, and Environmental Sustainability: Urban Agriculture Fighting Poverty”

– Joseph Towner – “Community Service Grants”

– Elizabeth Selbst – “Fund Local Land Banking to Reverse Urban Sprawl”

– Neil Patrick Reilly – “A Boost to Rentals and Public Housing”

– Lee Blum – “The World’s Best Vocational Institute”

– Brian Footer – “Local Government Grant Program”

– Peter Thomas – “Government Knowing Its Constituents”

– Daniel Turner – “Invest in the Future”

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Avatar photo Katelyn Keegan

You know, I host an online government simulation called the American Republic (better known as TAR) it is open to anyone interested in playing. We do all of the things you are suggesting. We (as administrators) frame either current stories or stories that we think may happen to let players make policy decisions. Players also write policy, debate in committees and on the floor of the senate. Back in June, when the real Congress was debating our nation’s debt, the players of TAR took up the issue of PAYGO, which was recognized and studied by a real political interest group called “The Bipartisan Policy Center.” You can read the article here. It’s a great teaching took. We have a number of players from around the world, with various backgrounds. I totally recommend it, but then again I’m owner so I would.

Online government simulations (govsims) have been around a long time. I got my start in politics and online govsims back in December 1999 on American Online’s Senate Simulation. Over the years I have seen at least 20 different ones that have run the gamut of state gov’t sims, local gov’t sims, national gov’t sims (US, UK, Canada, Australia, imaginary countries) and international simulations. Some examples would be QPawnwhere you run your own country; United States Government Simulator, US national government simulation; and, iPolitics, US national government simulation. A few years ago, one of the online government simulators was supposedly involved in a case study with a government about how they could do exactly what you are suggesting see how people resolved real life issues, responded to crisis and how they worked together. It had some really interesting results.

As for offline government simulator games, I have heard positive reviews about President Forever, Congress Forever and Geo-Political Simulator.

Neil Bonner

How about a game or simulator that shows how much money the government spends on useless programs? Kind of a self-referential game…