Budget Climb: Video Game Visualizes American Tax Dollar Spending
The usual rejoinder used to quiet those naysayers who claim that video games are nothing but a waste of time is that they teach kids valuable skills like strategic thinking, split-second decision making, and how to conduct special forces operations behind enemy lines. You know, your basic life skills. But how about a game that teaches kids how American taxes are being spent? Everyone likes to know how their hard-earned cash is being dispensed and distributed by the government, but the complicated and laborious task of making sense of the data is, not surprisingly, not exactly a common leisurely pastime. Which is of course why data visualizations can be so handy. A project that kicked off back in February from Eyebeam called Data Viz Challenge asked participants to visualize how taxpayers’ dollars were spent using data from whatwepayfor.com.
Though the competition has now closed and the winners are due to be announced on April 18, we were intrigued by one entry that skirted the typical data viz formats of infographic and animations, instead turning the raw data into an interactive game. Designers Frankie Cheung, Zach Schwartz, and Fred Truman turned the minefield of disappearing tax dollars into an exploratory cityscape. Made using openframeworks, a hacked Kinect, and OpenNI, the game, called Budget Climb, is “a physically interactive data environment where we can explore 26 years of federal spending—giving us a unique perspective on how our government spends our money. In order to explore the data we must exert physical effort, revealing how the budget is distributed in a novel and tangible way.”
Towers of varying height corresponding to spending are traversed by an Uncle Sam-hatted figure (surely, Donkey Kong was a missed opportunity?), allowing the player to see which areas received what amounts over the course of different years. Users explore different “neighborhoods” of this “budget metropolis” to learn about various economic issues like the housing bubble. While it’s probably not going to be the next video game blockbuster, it certainly makes learning about tax spending accessible and engaging, which is a massive achievement in itself.
There’s often talk about the “gamification” of the world and how activities that are rather dull, like personal banking, will be given greater interest by teaching the skills you need to deal with them using, for instance, a puzzle game. And Budget Climb is an immersive example of how to engage audiences of all ages and interests using a simple and engaging way of exploring a complicated issue, like government spending. Now, who’s going to gamify cleaning your apartment?