August Learning Games Spotlight: Fiscal Ship

This month we will be starting a new series in the NASAGA blog: learning games spotlights. In this new series, we will spotlight games that were built to teach and games that are being used creatively by teachers to bring play into the classroom.

The first game in this series is Fiscal Ship, a government finance game collaboratively designed by the Hutchins Center for Fiscal and Monetary Policy and the Wilson Center. Fiscal Ship is available free to play online here.

Learning Game Summary

Fiscal Ship puts the learner in charge of a classic steam ship sailing the oceans. Or, rather, it uses the metaphor of this ship to make national fiscal planning an approachable topic to students. At the onset, players choose three basic goals, such as cut taxes, strengthen military defense, and limit entitlements. The object of the game is to achieve these goals and balance the budget by 2046.

After getting their goals, the player is presented with a list of policy choices, divided into logical categories. Each policy comes with a description, some arguments for, and some arguments against. If the player chooses the specific policy, they are given live feedback on how that choice might affect the budget in the form of a simple chart.

By choosing policies, the player must balance their goals with the national debt. Players can depend on the live update to the debt prediction to inform their choices of hundreds of policies. Once the player has chosen all policies they wish to enact, the game calculates an outcome.

Should the debt go out of control or the players fail to achieve their goals, the game will be lost. However, if they are able to successfully achieve their goals without bankrupting the country, they win.

Fiscal ship learning games goals

Game Educational Principles

The learning game design of Fiscal Ship relies on four primary principles: systems simulations, predictive modeling, immediate feedback and near-no-win situations.

System Simulations

Systems simulations are an extremely common learning games design choice. In a system simulation, players can experiment within a realistic system to better understand how it works. Evidence suggests that open experimentation is a far more effective teaching goal than rote memory or asking players to take specific actions rather than experimenting. One advantage of computer games is that system simulations can be far more complex than any pen and paper simulation .

Predictive Modeling and Feedback

Predictive modeling and feedback go hand in hand. When a player or learner receives immediate feedback from an action, they are able to adjust their mental model of a system. If I let go of a ball and it drops, my mental model stays the same. However, if I were to let go of a ball and it floated away, I would have to adjust how I thought about gravity.

In a game, a player can quickly adjust to a fairly complex system and, using the feedback they receive, create a fairly accurate model of how the game works. Why is this important? Predictive models are how learners engage in complex thinking and internalize knowledge to a level that allows them to abstract and transfer it to other situations.

Near-No-Win Situation

Some of the most powerful learning games involve a no-win situation, a game that cannot be won. Fiscal Ship is definitely winnable, but the game emphasizes that achieving all U.S. financial goals is a highly difficult task. By keeping the task honest to the challenge at hand, players get an idea of exactly what the nation is up against, as well as a glimpse into how dangerous it may be to oversimplify these issues.

Fiscal ship learning games outcomes

In-Class or In-Home?

Because Fiscal Ship is free to play online, the game can be played anywhere.

However, while students may be able to play at home, Fiscal Ship is a game that should connect deeply to course content. Without context for the importance of specific policies and the budget as a whole, Fiscal Ship‘s message may not be heard by most students.

Wrap Up

In all, Fiscal Ship is a powerful tool for teaching some fairly complex financial concepts, but shouldn’t be assigned to any student without some level of in-class debrief.

About the Author

Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.

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