Wednesday, March 16, 2011

SPENT: Game Like You're Homeless

I heard about the SPENT web game on NPR's Marketplace Money program a while back -- it's a simulation of the monthly budgeting difficulties of the poor and the homeless.  It was created by Urban Ministries of Durham, and gives players an opportunity to experience the day-to-day challenges faced by our society's less fortunate.  The challenge is to make it through the month without running out of money, and it's a formidable task.  And as simple as it is, I think SPENT says some interesting things about the way we as human beings engage emotionally with games.

The player starts out in dire but not unrealistic straits -- without a job, having recently lost his or her home, as a single parent with a second mouth to feed and a scant $1000 left in the bank.  So finding employment is the first order of the day, and the career options available are limited -- restaurant server, warehouse worker, or temp.  To get a temp job, the player must take a brief typing test -- in this situation, that's the route I would take, so that's what I did here:

I passed the standard 55 wpm test (I'm a blogger after all) and was able to get temporary work paying $9 an hour.  The next order of survival business is lodging -- living a greater distance from work means lower rent, but higher transportation costs, so this is not necessarily an easy decision to make.

The income is very helpful, but as a temp I found that some days I would have work, sometimes I wouldn't.  And I had car trouble one day, generated by the game's random-event engine, so I lost a couple hours' pay after finally making it to work by bus.  In my real-life neck of the woods, there IS no good public transportation, so that was an eye opener for me personally.

One has to eat, so grocery shopping also comes into play -- I bought ramen and apples and tried to stretch my grocery budget as best I could.  I managed to get out the door with $53 spent, which is probably not realistic for two weeks, but the available items are limited; one can only eat so many peanut butter sandwiches.

I was doing okay around mid-month, but then some unfortunate events conspired against me.  I got a speeding ticket, which I successfully contested in court -- but that still cost me $50 in court costs, and I lost a day's pay in the process.  My child needed $15 for a school field trip to the natural history museum -- I paid it, because I believe education is important, but that pushed my bank balance below $50 temporarily, triggering a $5 bank fee.  And then I had a serious tooth-related issue -- while I was paying for health insurance, I had no dental coverage, and fixing the painful problem wiped me out on day 22 of the month.

That was on my second try, mind -- on the first go-round, I lost my job after being seen talking to a union organizer and was in trouble by day 15.  The game provides informational popups about these events -- in this case, it notes that firing workers for trying to organize is illegal, but that such retaliation does in fact happen.

Is SPENT a piece of interactive propaganda?  Sure, to a degree -- it's meant to raise awareness, and hopefully funds, to help the homeless, and so it occasionally lays it on a little thick.  The nitpicker in me wishes it would cite its sources when it presents facts and statistics about life in the poverty zone.

But it's not overplayed, and what I find interesting from a game design perspective is how successfully its matter-of-fact approach engenders deep sympathy in the player.  We've all had times when the cash was going out faster than the paychecks were coming in, and the game's random events are familiar emergencies in any socioeconomic circumstances.  The difference is that most of us reading this have spare time and resources -- enough to, let's face it, sit around and play video games -- and so are probably reasonably comfortable.  At least, we probably have a financial cushion and a semi-dependable income to smooth out the ride from month to month.  I almost wrote that that gives us the power to make decisions -- but that's not a fair statement, because low-income individuals can make good decisions too.  What SPENT does very effectively is point out how constrained those decisions sometimes are when you're living below the poverty line.

See, when I run into a bank fee in real life, it's because I was careless and didn't monitor my balance closely enough, or I made a risky assumption about transaction timing.  But in SPENT, the $5 hit felt like just another institutionalized penalty for being poor.  In my job, if I have to take a day off to take care of some errands, I can use vacation time -- it doesn't directly impact my next paycheck.  When you're working by the hour, it's much harder to do that.  Most of us can fix a broken window, or convince the landlord to do it, instead of taping plastic over the hole because the landlord refuses to bother.  Most of us don't have to deal with a hefty utility reactivation fee because we couldn't afford to pay the previous month's electric bill on time.  The working poor really are disproportionately hit with these kinds of costs, expenses that people in more stable circumstances rarely have to think about.

Gameplay-wise, SPENT is just a series of push-button choices and drag-and-drop exercises, rendered in stark orange on a dull brown background.  But because the game evokes real-world decision-making processes that all adults are familiar with, it manages to establish an intellectual and emotional connection that puts its point across.  The world really does look different when you're on the bottom, and financial decisions are harder to make when you actually have to choose among necessities.  This game uses the power of interactive engagement to challenge stereotypes about the homeless and the working poor.  It's worth spending a little time with SPENT.


  1. Hi There!

    Thanks so much for making the time to comment on your experience playing SPENT. It was definitely a labor of love, so I'm glad to see that people like yourself are thinking and talking about it.

    As to your comment about wanting to see sources, I thought I'd point out that there's actually a source document link on We decided not to include source links within the game play as we wanted to keep the interface clean.

    If you're interested in our sources, you can read more here:

  2. I played the game and no matter what I seemed to do, I ended up loosing because I had a balance lower than my rent for the next month. ( I had about 662$) my question is, based off of what they have given you to choose from is there a way to survive til the next month and have enough money to pay rent?

    1. Yes there is. I beat the game all the time. Last time at the end of the month I still had $750.