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Balancing Act

Mark Smith, Darius Kazemi and Michael Gesner of WPI's Game Development Club.

Think you can bring the state budget into line? Let the gaming begin.

By Scott Kirsner

It's 9 p.m., and a meeting of the WPI Game Development Club is getting under way. A dozen students are seated in front of laptops around a square table in a Campus Center conference room. Power outlets are in short supply. Club co-founder Michael Gesner '04 sends an instant message to a member who is supposed to be present, extracting a promise to be there in 15 minutes. But not much work gets done until the Mountain Dew and pizza arrive at 9:30.

"Tonight's meeting is focused on getting the beta out the door," explains Gesner. The beta he's referring to is a prerelease version of a game called "MassBalance" that the club is creating, in collaboration with the office of State Sen. Richard T. Moore. While many of the club's games revolve around fantasy realms (sample title: "Warlords of the Armageddon"), the central task in "MassBalance" isn't slaying foes. The goal of the Web-based game is balancing the state budget.

In two years of existence, the Game Development Club, led by Darius Kazemi '05, has designed several games for its members' own enjoyment, but "MassBalance" is its highest-profile project so far. The 60-member club was given less than two months to complete the game, from the initial "functional specifications" document to the rollout in May.

Also, the club was dealing with an outside partner for the first time. "The senator's office has certain expectations," Gesner says. "They want us to combine fun with accuracy. We're working with real budget numbers, and presenting players with certain random events to show how those can affect the budget." Among the random events: a massive blizzard, the outbreak of a SARS-like epidemic, and rioting following a Red Sox victory in the World Series.

The club landed the pro bono assignment to build "MassBalance" earlier this year, when Sen. Moore attended an annual breakfast of state legislators and representatives from Worcester-area colleges. WPI associate provost Lance Schachterle recalls, "Senator Moore mentioned that a computer game existed in some states to give citizens a sense of the trade-offs involved in balancing a budget. We said right away, 'Gee, this is something our students could probably do.'" Schachterle made the initial connection between the Game Development Club and the senator's office. (Two students from Worcester's Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science also were part of the "MassBalance" team.)

"A lot of people think that legislators dealing with a difficult budget will somehow just find the money, or that we're looking for excuses to raise taxes," says Sen. Moore, a Republican whose district covers southern Worcester County. "We hope the game will help people understand what goes into producing a balanced budget, especially given a soft economy."

The game invites players to explore the trade-offs involved in funding one set of programs versus another, like education or public health. (If you underfund the latter, though, the state could be ill-equipped to handle an epidemic like SARS.) "In creating this game, I think we all learned a huge amount about the state budget process," says Mark Smith '06, the lead programmer for "MassBalance." Players can also raise the sales tax, income tax or gas tax--but not without a corresponding impact. If the economy worsens, players are told that their decision to hike taxes took the brunt of the blame.

As the game was being developed, its testers included Sen. Moore and his chief of staff, David Martin, along with Professor Schachterle. "I've been very impressed by the [club members]," says Sen. Moore. "I've been reviewing the game with them to make sure it's real and accurate, but not too detailed. We wanted to help people understand the choices involved in balancing a budget, without boring them."

After completing work on "MassBalance," which was released in May, Gesner and his fellow club members moved on to other projects, including a game for the Admissions Office simulating the life of a WPI student.

But the possibility also looms for "MassBalance" Version 2.0. "Since we know the economic problems will be with us for a couple years," says Moore, "we might see if the students are interested in developing the game further."

Scott Kirsner is the technology columnist for The Boston Globe and a contributing editor to Fast Company magazine.

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