WPI Students Create Online Game to Simulate Massachusetts State Budget Process

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - May 24, 2003 - What's so hard about balancing a state budget? Massachusetts citizens can find out for themselves, thanks to some enterprising students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who have developed a free online game called MassBalance (www.playmassbalance.com) that simulates the state budget process.

In MassBalance, players are asked to do what legislators have been trying to do for months - balance the Massachusetts state budget for the 2004 fiscal year, which has a $3 billion dollar deficit. The game simulates the budget process from beginning to end. Players can change funding for programs and tax rates to prepare and submit their own budgets. The game assesses players' budget decisions during the preparation phase. Once players submit their budgets, the game generates a fictional year that includes triggered and random events before delivering a final evaluation. The game was developed as a school project by a team of 19 students from WPI and the public high school Massachusetts Academy for Mathematics and Science who are members of the WPI Game Development Club (GDC).

"We designed MassBalance to challenge people's conceptions about what a video game is," says MassBalance producer and WPI student Michael N. Gesner. "We designed it to be fun, while also teaching and conveying to players important concepts and lessons about the complexities of the state budget process. Games don't have to be violent to be fun, and educational games don't have to be boring. At WPI, we study games and their impacts from a social, technical and artistic standpoint." The MassBalance game begins in the Block Values screen, where players develop their budgets by increasing program funding, decreasing spending, or choosing to cut programs entirely. The budget is divided into eight categories, or blocks, representing assistance to the poor, central costs, economic development, education, government, public services, sick and disabled, and transportation. Players also have the option of increasing revenues by raising taxes on gas, personal income and sales.

After budgets are submitted by players, the game simulation phase features triggered events that kick in when a program is cut by a certain percentage. For instance, if funding for the Massachusetts Highway Department is cut by 50 percent (from $106 million to $53 million), a text warning at the bottom of the screen tells players the consequences: many of the state's roads and bridges deteriorate and become dangerous. Triggered events show the value of certain programs and the dangers of overzealous budget cutting.

The triggered events are the heart of the game resulting in outcomes, which convey the level of complexity in attempting to balance a budget.

Another level of simulation is mathematically random events that might happen to a player, and wise budget planners make provisions for them. For instance, the Red Sox might win the World Series and players' funding for local police departments had better be sufficient to contain the happy (and shocked!) crowds.

MassBalance was initially conceived by state Senator Richard T. Moore (D-Uxbridge) as a way to educate and engage Massachusetts' citizens with the details and complexities of balancing a budget that has a $3 billion hole in it. After seeing examples of similar games being used in other states, Senator Moore approached officials at WPI about developing a computer game that would give citizens a chance to make budgeting decisions similar to the ones legislators are making.

As one of the largest clubs of its kind in the country, the WPI Game Development Club was up to the task. The GDC is a 60-member WPI student organization dedicated to fostering the creation of games in a university environment. The club is modeled after a typical game development studio, with multiple development teams working on projects, including the development of original titles for PC and console platforms, modification of existing games, and studies of game issues (social, technical and artistic).

The club developed MassBalance in just nine weeks. At the same time, the students were also attending classes as full-time students, and some were even working part-time jobs.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865, WPI is a pioneer in technological higher education. WPI was the first university to understand that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom to the solution of important problems. Today its students, working in teams at more than 20 project centers around the globe, put their knowledge and skills to work as they complete professional-level work that can have an immediate positive impact on society.

WPI's innovative, globally focused curriculum has been recognized by leaders in industry, government and academia as the model for the technological education of tomorrow. Students emerge from this program as true technological humanists, well rounded, with the confidence, the interpersonal skills and the commitment to innovation they need to make a real difference in their professional and personal lives.

The university awarded its first advanced degree in 1898. Today, its first-rate research laboratories support master's and Ph.D. programs in more than 30 disciplines in engineering, science and the management of technology. Located in the heart of the region's biotechnology and high-technology sectors, WPI has built research programs-including the largest industry/university alliance in North America-that have won it worldwide recognition.