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At the Federal Games Guild, video games and public policy play together

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A child plays an online game on a tablet booth at the ED Games Expo in Washington D.C., while a woman points toward the tablet to show him how to play.

"You're not going to get the same thing from reading a 25-page policy brief as you'll get from a game, but more people — I bet — will play my game," the FGG's Elizabeth Newbury says. Courtesy Department of Education

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If you’ve ever wanted to try balancing the federal budget or test how well you understand disinformation, there are video games that let you do both, thanks in part to members of the Federal Games Guild.

The Federal Games Guild, or FGG, is an informal group of people interested in making games related to the federal government and public policy. While the group traces its origins back to the Barack Obama administration, it is currently housed at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Elizabeth Newbury is the director of the Serious Games Initiative at the Wilson Center, as well as the chair of the FGG.

She spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about her work on public policy games. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So when you go to a dinner party or a cocktail party or the kids’ soccer game or whatever, and somebody says, “What do you do?” And you say, “I’m the director of the Serious Games Initiative at the Wilson Center, and I’m also affiliated with the Federal Games Guild,” then what happens?

Elizabeth Newbury: Well, typically they ask me to explain Minecraft to them. But, more importantly, I explain that I have a background and Ph.D. in game studies from Cornell University, and part of my job is to use games for positive outcomes for social good and to tackle leading policy issues of today.

Ryssdal: Well, keep going with the policy issues thing. What makes a good policy game?

Newbury: Yeah. So at the Wilson Center, we’re an international-focused think tank. We also develop games and try to help engage broad dynamics of stakeholders — in my case, often middle school students and up — on leading policy issues. So one of our games is called The Fiscal Ship. It’s on the federal budget and national debt.

Ryssdal: That is a hard game, by the way. It is a superhard game.

Newbury: Oh yeah.

Ryssdal: You sound surprised that I’ve played.

Newbury: No, not that you’ve played. I’ve played it before — everything from middle school students to members of Congress. And it’s interesting how everyone comes with a different lens to that particular game.

Ryssdal: We should say here that Fiscal Ship is a game about the federal budget, and you get some policy objectives or you choose yours, and then you have to make the budget work. And as I said, and maybe it’s just me, I think it’s really hard. How does one, however, go about getting involved with the game world for these kinds of policy games that you’re talking about? I mean, not everybody has a Ph.D. in game studies, right?

Newbury: Yeah. So, thank you again — obviously, you have played the Fiscal Ship. I should also note that you can play it at yourself and see if you can do better than we can at it. But one of the things that —

Ryssdal: Do you know the secret cheat code for Fiscal Ship? I mean, all games have cheat codes, right?

Newbury: Well, I can’t give all the secrets. But I will say that the game will stop you if the goals that you set are too hard. But most of the time, you can get to the goals and reducing national debt in about 14 moves or so. I’ll slip you the cheat codes after this talk.

Ryssdal: Maybe afterward. I mean, look, the Federal Games Guild and the Serious Games Initiative — it’s serious work, right? Because you want people to learn and understand this stuff.

Newbury: Exactly. So games can be really used to help motivate people to learn. The other thing that we know games are really good at is that they’re really good at helping to make things that are otherwise really potentially dangerous — such as crashing the federal budget, but also I’m thinking of my colleagues at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], who developed [virtual reality] experiences for everything from labs to coal miners — and just making those experiences safe and accessible and dynamic in a way, and testing it and providing that sort of an avenue for training that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Ryssdal: Yeah, so what are games bad at then? What doesn’t work in your policy gaming world, right?

Newbury: So I would say that they’re not necessarily as good at, like, a graduate-level course in economics, for example. You’re not going to get the same thing from reading a 25-page policy brief as you’ll get from a game, but more people — I bet — will play my game than they will read a 25-page policy brief.

Ryssdal: I’m not taking that bet. That is a safe bet. Outside of policy games, like when you go home and you’re done with gaming professionally for the day, are you a gamer in real life, too?

Newbury: Yes, I actually do play video games. It’s a part of the job, but also something that I enjoy. And in point of fact, the reason I got into the field I’m interested in is, is because there aren’t a lot of women gamers out there. I grew up with three brothers who would notoriously keep me out of the Sega Genesis room and that sort of thing while they were playing. And so of course, I had to go on and make it a professional focus to show them that I can do it better than they can.

Ryssdal: Well, on the theory that they might be listening, because you’ll tell them that you’re on, can you beat them now?

Newbury: They probably wouldn’t admit it, but I probably can beat them at a couple of things.

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