SimBudget

Eric Morris, a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies, has already written a few posts here, and will now join our corps of recurring guests bloggers. Please welcome him.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPhoto: nyki_m

I can’t help but wonder how many urban planners were inspired to enter the profession by computer games like SimCity or Railroad Tycoon. I can’t help but admit to spending a few hours (O.K., more than a few) blasting virtual tunnels through the Rockies and rebuilding Tokyo after those annoying SimCity Godzilla attacks.

But I for one am unapologetic; these programs convey information about arcane topics like utility maintenance costs and right-of-way clearance in a fun and accessible manner. In particular, they give a valuable sense of the trade-offs that cannot be avoided in crafting public policy.

Now the Kansas Department of Transportation has come up with a neat way to both educate the public about its services and get valuable feedback about customer preferences, using a game-like format. The T-Link Calculator allows you to set transportation policy in Kansas and see the fiscal results of your choices.

On the revenue side, you can change the projected size of the tax base and raise or lower various levies, transfer payments, and fees. On the spending side, you can let your highway pavement crumble so you can fund new bike/pedestrian improvements, or you can add lanes to your urban freeways while slighting mass transit. Or you can have it all by issuing lots of bonds — although the site shows you the budgetary havoc this can wreak down the road.

I think this format has a lot of promise for governments, and not just for departments of transportation. By presenting the information this way, the Kansas Department of Transportation reaches out to voters (particularly younger ones) who are accustomed to interactivity and immediate feedback from their information sources. I have a feeling that many people who would never think of sitting down and reading the state budget will warm to playing “transportation god” on this site.

Moreover, the site makes it clear that we can’t ask for everything from our government; tough budgetary choices have to be made. Perhaps users will come away with a bit more sympathy for the officials who strive to make us all happy while keeping the public purse from running dry.

Even better, the information exchange goes both ways. K.D.O.T. collects data about the preferences users express on the site to help set funding priorities.

After using the calculator I can’t help but conclude K.D.O.T. hasn’t allocated enough money to its Godzilla defenses. But other than that, it is onto a very interesting idea. Maybe other government entities will follow suit.


bb

I used to work for Banner blue software company and they had a program called Uncle Sam's Budget Balancer that worked like this (though its a bit dated now, and the budget #'s are no doubt out of date as well). There was a corresponding program for the California budget called Eureka. You can find them both here now: http://www.klhess.com/unclesam/ (they are DOS/Windows applications)

Mercutio.Mont

Where's the "privatize" button?

Ben

I actually had a professor use SimCity as a teaching tool. Though I knew the cheat codes, so it made balancing my budget a little easier.

Hunter

That is the coolest thing I've seen government do in a long, long time.

(full disclosure: grew up in Kansas; of the strong opinion that the state does not get enough credit as a bellwether of economic, social and political change)

Quill

If you're looking for similar teaching tools, I'd recommend Tropico. You have to balance a state-run economy, pacify various factions -- all on a slice of Caribbean paradise.

Arlen

SimCity inspired me to enter my profession; I'm now an urban economist.

Jeffrey

This is like American Public Media's Budget Hero -- a video game that lets you run the federal budget. Frankly, I think Budget Hero should be required for all high school and college Government classes.

Hoosier Paul

Very cool. I work in economic development for a municipal government, and I can confirm that these types of games had a big impact on my interest in governance.

C. Larity

Does anyone EVER adequately budget for their Godzilla defense systems?

matt

Reminds me of an old DOS-based game you could download called, 'Drug Wars'. That's all I needed to know about finances and markets :)

Conrad Beckwith

It's a pity that the alternative of private transportation methods, e.g. private bus lines, is not part of the range of solutions. Why does anyone suppose that a few planners have more information about the economic trade-offs than hundreds of thousands of commuters and the many firms that might serve them.

Witness the fiasco that Santiago, Chile witnessed when it went from a private bus system to one planned with SimCity-like wisdom: a system that showed $6M/year profit (private) to one that shows a $600M/year deficit, an tripling of average commute times, and increase in accident rates (the new buses are too big for the roads), and numerous passengers left by the side of the road because drivers are now rewarded for being on time rather than the number of passengers they carry. And on and on...

Why do complex systems that markets can best handle need to be "controlled" by central planning, and why should we encourage it? Didn't we learn anything from the Soviet Union's collapse?

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whoanellie

Ha ha #4! The first thing that comes to mind here in Chicago is Gov. Blagojevich had cheat codes too! Only he failed the class.

Vidal-CMS

I am (well was) a heavy SimCity4 game player. And to be honest it has also influenced me to want to study civil engineering (I'm still in high school) because I want to build skyscrapers. I didn't know other people thought SimCity could be so influential to them too.
It is true that SimCity4 is the closest game out there that can model a living city, and the economics behind it is amazing. For example, the demand for commercial zones comes from educated sims that need jobs. And only demand of high-wealth jobs comes from educated sims, and that only comes from high level of education in cities. It's amazing to see how demand and supply of all wealth classes of sims drop and rise according to the public goods offered to them by the government (me) during gameplay. Every little aspect of the game has an immediate effect and long term effect on your city, I think that is what makes the game so addicting.
(This doesn't have much reflecting the KDOT, but there's a lot of economics behind a game that influences many).

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Briancms

As a way to reach out to the general populus, especially the young, few tools could ever top a video game. I don't see how the government would be gaining feedback from the game though as i presume the people's reactions are preset to certain responses and the peopel try to maximize efficiency and hapines rather than their personal preferences for transit schemes.

Still, I could see this game expanding into a city or state budget game, bringing city problems to people in an interactive form, and possibly creating a greater interest in students in becoming involved in politics. On the way, maybe the state government gets a little monetary kickback.

ShuN-CmS

This type of program is great – it is not a waste of time like other games – you can enjoy AND learn. As Brian said, this is great tool for people to get involved in politics. Or it can be other things, since, this is not a waste of time like other shooting games, parents for instance will not stop their child from playing but rather encourage them to place. In addition, in today's world where a computer is a necessity for everyone, and with many youngsters who don't spend time with their families, it gives opportunity for children to spend time with their grandparents to teaching them how to use a computer, and grandparents talk to them about politics/society/world, or many other things, about their life etc. I mean, they're old, they have a lot of experience, which most of them want to share, listen to them.

grover

It's a great idea, but how does one ensure that competing economic and political theories are adequately represented? That seems quite difficult to accomplish, since so many theories are in direct contrast.

sarahCMS

Actually these games are very educative for kids. When I was younger and enjoyed of more free time, I used to play "The Sims", "Sim City", everything that had a name of Sims in it. In my opinion SimCity was the most educational since it provides players virgin land; In order for them to decide what they want in their city.
And recently in my economics class we were discussing about nuclear power and its risks. Who would ever think that I would have some background on this topic thanks to a game? I instantly remembered why we should not build such plants near the civilization. Due to the radiation these plants would "throw" if they were exploited. Meaning that if the city overused it, or tried to maximize its capability it would explode, then I could not build anything around it for some time. Also many things got burned and destroyed.
This game not only teaches you about decisions on power plants, but also on public goods, etc. It simulates it so that if the government did not provide enough money for such public goods, the streets would be filled with strikes, and the city became a chaos, since people left their jobs.
Definelty an entertaining and educational game I would recommend anyone.

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Kimota94

Interesting article, and welcome to Eric!

As the nit-picking type, though, "I can't help but" notice that he used that particular expression three times in a relatively short article (twice in the opening paragraph). If there was some literary reason for it, sadly it was lost on me. If it was instead just a bit of unintended stylistic repetition, then let me offer that future articles will read better without it.

Julia XA

Don't know about all that budget and 'hard choices' stuff.

I'm a woman.

Where's my bridge contract?

Angela

I used to play SimCity all the time when I was younger, now I'm a transport planner... it definately inspired me!!