Grade Levels: 6-8, 9-12

This lesson plan, adaptable for grades 5-12, features the game The Fiscal Ship, from our partners the Hutchins Center at Brookings and the Serious Games Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The game uses real-world data from the Congressional Budget Office to help students learn about national debt and the role of the federal budget. Within the game, players choose national policies that affect the US. fiscal debt. Based on their decisions, students will explore the relationship between fiscal policies and the effect they have on the future debt. The game challenges students to put the federal budget on a sustainable course by choosing a combination of tax and spending policies.

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Learn about the effects of spending vs. saving in a national budget
  2. Explore how U.S. policies affect the US fiscal debt
  3. Understand the relationships between being fiscally conservative/liberal and being socially conservative/liberal


  • Computers or other devices with internet access
  • Whiteboard or chalkboard


Preview and play The Fiscal Ship to plan how you will adapt it to your students’ needs. Be familiar with the choices your students will need to make. A game guide from our partners provides guidelines for supporting the use of the game in your classroom. Additionally, this video on How to Play the Fiscal Ship provides an overview of its features.

A basic understanding of the concept of interest is necessary to play The Fiscal Ship successfully.

Build background knowledge or reinforce topics with the BrainPOP movies: Debt and Recession.

Your students can play the game with a partner or in small groups of 3.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Play the BrainPOP movie Recession on a whiteboard or other display for the whole class. At timecode 0:36 ~ 1:46, the movie explains how the economy slows down when people lose their jobs and stop spending money. Pause after this part of the movie and explain that this effect also happens when people save disproportionately more than they spend.
  2. Draw a T-chart on the whiteboard or on chart paper. Label one side "socially conservative" and the other "socially liberal." (Alternatively, add another column labeled "centrist".) Brainstorm with your students how to categorize each of the 9 goals in The Fiscal Ship.
  3. Have students play the game by selecting one of the goals. Alternatively, you can assign goals to students. To achieve their goals, students should recognize whether they played fiscally liberal (spend money now) or fiscally conservative policies (cut spending).
  4. After playing, students share the policies they selected based on their goals. For example, students who chose "Invest in the Future" should have selected mostly fiscally liberal policies to fund education and environmentalist policies. Meanwhile, students who chose a goal such as "Rein in Entitlements" would have cut spending for welfare programs in order to achieve their goal.
  5. Now have students play the game again, but this time they should select three goals and label each goal as socially conservative or socially liberal. Advise them to keep track of their policies and record whether they made fiscally conservative or fiscally liberal choices.
  6. After playing, have students share with the class what interesting relationships they discovered from playing the game. Guide your students by asking some of the following questions:
    • How were you able to achieve your goals?
    • What were some policies that you didn’t want to make, but had to in order to reduce the fiscal debt?
    • What was the single biggest move you made to reduce the fiscal debt? Why do you think that was the case?
    • What were some moves that were not so effective? Why do you think they weren’t effective??
  7. Conclude the lesson by having your students reflect on the game and write down three specific things that they learned. If your students have trouble thinking of answers, refer to the discussion questions from the previous step.