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Game Designers Become Activists in San Francisco’s Battle Over Taxes

SF Public Press
 — Aug 12 2011 - 8:04pm

 

‘Yay Taxes’ shows where the money goes, but some conservatives call it propaganda

In San Francisco, which closed a $380 million budget deficit in July, the question of whether the city can get any more money to fund essential services in the long term is at the top of everyone’s mind.

Even game developers are getting into the act — with a particular agenda.

A new game, in the style of SimCity, is designed to let users decide where their tax dollars go — and shows them the consequences of their choices. Dreamed up by a team of San Franciscans who are advocating for tax increases, the program portrays taxes as an indispensable component of a financially healthy city.

The latest in an ever-expanding genre of games designed to make civic affairs more engaging for the digital-native generation, “Yay Taxes!” is an attempt to “visualize the connection between beneficial tax dollars and public services,” according to its developers.

Project lead Heidi Dolamore began to flesh out the idea — which currently exists as a bare-bones website still in development at yaytaxes.org — during the Summer of Smart “hackathon” at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in late June.

The game was among the top audience picks among more than a dozen multimedia innovations cooked up over one intense coding weekend.

The question of revenues raised in the game has direct relevance to San Francisco’s mayoral race and November ballot measures that would increase sales, payroll and business taxes.

Another measure would levy a parcel tax on property owners that would raise $35 million per year and provide funding for the creation of new parks and for the beautification of existing parks.

The battle over city revenues has become a key focus of the debate among candidates for mayor. One, current City Attorney Dennis Herrera, backs state legislation to enable cities, counties and school districts to establish a personal income tax to fund public services that have been decimated over years of budget cuts. Another, former Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, takes a different tack. She supports payroll tax exemptions, particularly for biotech companies. Candidate and current Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting proposes a tax on medical marijuana, in spite of dispensaries’ predominantly nonprofit status.

San Francisco is not alone in dealing with years of budget cuts that have cascaded from the federal to state to local levels. Opponents of tax increases in the state Legislature note that California residents bear the sixth-highest taxes per capita in the nation, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Steve Forbes, the eponymous magazine’s editor,  summarized the antitax zeitgeist, exemplified by the tea party movement: “Instead of desperately trying to pick peoples’ pockets even more, state pols should be focusing on reforming and repairing their damaged fiscal houses.”

In the Bay Area, The Building Movement Project and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services have developed the Talking About Taxes project in an effort to spur staff of nonprofits  to get involved in efforts to revamp the state’s tax and budget structure.  The project has stated that without an increase in government revenues, there just isn’t enough money to go around for nonprofits, public schools and other services.

‘POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT’

Game designer Dolamore, who lives in San Francisco and works as a librarian in Pleasant Hill, said the community could benefit from a dose of “positive reinforcement.”

Visually, “Yay Taxes!” evokes Farmville or Sim City, with perpetually sunny skies and greenery. The interface invites users to envision how the city’s physical structures would fare under a variety of tax scenarios. The latest build of the game is avatar-free, though Dolamore said that could change with more programming. The point, though, is its substantially political message.

Visitors to the site will be greeted with a series of open-ended questions. If they make $25,000 a year, how much should they pay in taxes? How about if they earn $65,000? Or $125,000? Then users are asked to allocate the taxes collected as they see fit.

The options available for the players’ tax dollars include public safety, government and administration, K-12 education, higher education, health and human services, infrastructure and environment.

The city scenery then transforms according to how they allotted their taxes. The answers determine the look of the cityscape, which is supposedly inspired by San Francisco (but in the current version is pretty generic).

The game is simple but the point is clear — services cost money.

“You don’t like taxes?” Dolamore quipped. “Maybe you don’t like roads.” Indeed potholes threaten to pepper the program’s streets if left underfunded.

“Not enough for education?” she said. “Families will leave and so will businesses without an educated workforce.”

The game’s builders say that although they started out with a point of view, they did a substantial amount of research to make it statistically accurate.

But not everyone is amused by such playful takes on serious public policy.

Kris Vosburgh, a spokesman for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said this isn’t the first time he has seen attempts to make taxes more palatable through experiments like computer games. But, he said, they “very often are simplified in a way that disregards that the taxes we pay are already some of the highest in the nation.”

Calling this pro-tax gamification “propaganda,” he added that he doesn’t see efforts like “Yay Taxes!” having far-reaching impact.

“Taxwise, San Francisco is unusual,” he said. “Historically it doesn’t fit the state’s typical mold. For example, it was the only part of the state opposed to Proposition 13,” the 1978 state constitutional amendment that limited property taxes.

His assessment of San Francisco? “They sure do like taxes there — it’s like another planet.”

Dolamore said her objective was not to sugarcoat the tax process or brainwash users, but to frame taxes as “gratifying and tangible,” the way volunteering is.

SOCIAL MEDIA INSPIRATION

A whimsical feature is a faux Twitter feed that enables simulated “citizens” to weigh in and illustrate how their tax allocations have directly affected the quality of their lives. Someone who focuses on transportation will be rewarded with tweets like “New bus line straight from my house to office! Huzzah, no more commute!”

Community feedback and interaction will not just be imaginary. Dolamore said that in later iterations, “Yay Taxes!” will include interactive message boards to allow users to compare and cooperate within neighborhoods, to track local tax proposals, pose questions and enable users to discuss which government services are top priorities.

Dolamore acknowledges that these forums could generate a wide variety of opinions — some of which may not align with her original intent. And that’s fine by her, she said — collaboration, discussion and debate are steps in the right direction.

“Our goal was to excite people about all of the amazing things we can accomplish by coming together as a community,” she said. “Paying taxes is a collaborative act — we decide to share responsibility for the shape of the world around us.”