Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Making Sense of the Games Politicians Play

A game developer wants to teach warring legislators how to get along
Fig. 1 Cooperative Game. Fig. 2 Non-Cooperative Game
Fig. 1 Cooperative Game. Fig. 2 Non-Cooperative GameIllustration by Tracy Ma

One Saturday morning last year, about 90 leaders of neighborhood associations in San Jose gathered in small groups to play a game. Each person had a roll of fake money, from which he or she could pay for city services—like beat cops or libraries. Each group lacked enough money to cover the city’s budget. “We intentionally, just like reality, gave them far less money to buy the things they wanted,” says Kip Harkness, San Jose’s senior project manager.

By morning’s end, all the groups had agreed to run the city’s fire trucks with one less fireman each to save money. City council members adopted that change in San Jose’s actual budget last summer. At the same meetup this year, residents agreed to eliminate paid overtime for city managers, and six of 10 groups were willing to raise their sales tax by 0.25 percentage points, which the city is now considering. “I really haven’t had anyone tell me this is a waste of time,” says Harkness. “That’s pretty incredible when you’re talking about budgets.”