In February, Urban Ministries of Durham
(a faith-based, non-proselytizing aid organization) and McKinney
(an ad agency reportedly working pro bono) launched a webgame called Spent
about the hardships of poverty and unemployment. It puts players in the shoes of a single parent who has recently been put out of a job, has lost one's house to debts, and has only $1000 left in savings. The goal of the game is to make it through a month without going completely bankrupt. In many ways this game is similar to Positech's Kudos
series, which tasks a player-character in his or her late teens to build a career and a social life without succumbing to bankruptcy, illness, or depression. Both games stack the odds of success heavily against their players in order to prove a point, yet neither is completely unfair, random, or reliant on the rhetoric of failure. While Kudos
strives for a more complete simulation of the daily struggle to survive, Spent
is more about providing a light, casually playable experience driven by current research
on the costs of living.
is a game about short-term personal finance, or the daily need to pinch pennies just to keep food on the table and provide a small levee against emergencies. Although the game's loose causal chain between decision and consequence (coupled with the emphasis on text-based delivery of information) provides a less pure procedural rhetorical model of poverty, it is nevertheless effective given an assumed target audience of middle-class teenagers and young adults. For many this game will merely serve as an exercise in sensitivity to the plights of the less fortunate (a balm to relieve conservative semantic engineering), perhaps inspiring a small donation at the end of the game. Instead of seeing Spent
as a "call to action," it might be okay to settle for the more feasible--yet no less daunting or important--goal of educating young adults who are about to make decisions about whether to take out loans to go to college, keep an unwanted pregnancy, drop out of high school, or enter the job market.
From the outset, one of Spent's obvious strengths is its graphic design. The presentation is slick, transitioning beautifully between days, factoids, and mini-games. It might sound uncouth (or obvious), but attractiveness is ridiculously important for the retention of most casual players of webgames. While the content of the game might be seen as dry, its design and provocative textual rhetoric ("are you up for the challenge?") do a lot to pull one into the experience. Spent's opening decision is one that will be familiar to many recent high school--and, increasingly in recent years, college--graduates: wait tables, work in a factory, or temp? While the first two options serve as an introductory lesson in the trade-offs between a steady salary and tip-based labor, selecting the temp agency option surprises players with a typing proficiency test similar to one that would confront a real-life job seeker.
asks its players to make a number of difficult decisions, mostly centered around family responsibility (paying for a child's advanced placement classes, school lunches, and trips to the museum) and ethical gray space (paying for a fender-bender or hitting and running). There are also a couple of choices, such as whether to get dental care for a root canal, that leave constant reminders of delinquency in the form on threatening icons above one's current funding. Unfortunately, many of these decisions have no direct feedback into the system. I've played through a number of times, and my failure to pay for the root canal or the bumped fender never came back to haunt me. Many of these decisions, such as whether or not to smoke a cigarette to relieve some stress, simply open up factoid screens that give insights into how people enter into unhealthy living or get themselves into legal trouble--they're disguised trivia questions rather than actual choices.
That said, many choices become more powerful (as if by placebo effect) through one's constant focus on the dwindling amount of money ever-present on the lefthand of the screen. Even when I know that failing to attend the funeral of a loved won't tangibly effect some kind of "sociability" or "morale" meter, I find myself more likely to bite the bullet and lose a day's worth of pay if I find myself with excess funds following a recent paycheck. Similarly, I won't think twice about denying my child an ice cream cone when I've got less than a hundred dollars left in my pocket. Spent
's most interesting tradeoffs emerge from its virality model, by which players can ask their Facebook friends "for help" on key decisions. By this point, most conscientious Facebook users feel a bit of shame whenever they ask their friends to click links for help in a game; therefore, this is a decent simulation of the real quandary one faces when risking losing face or favor to ask for help in real life emergencies.
One of the weaknesses of a highly context-specific simulation of decisions that many young adults deal with already is that the available choices might contrast with one's actual experience. For instance, a Canadian friend of mine contested the game's insistence that a player own a car and deal with inefficient public transit when it breaks down. Because he had lived in bike-friendly cities with efficient train systems, this forced economic burden broke the system for him--that said, it did serve as a lesson in how differently people live in many larger cities of the United States. In my case, I'd lived for a long time in a college town where waiting tables, biking, and living on a $400/mo. rent was a perfectly feasible way to raise a child, pay off debts, and live comfortably. Of course, there are a number of reasons why it isn't easy to uproot oneself and move to a friendlier town, but it is frustrating nevertheless to be unable to customize one's play session to suit one's own local conditions. It's also somewhat strange that the game assumes that people in such situations can't take second or even third jobs (presumably having a child to care for discourages this, but there are real-world workarounds for this that are ignored).
's strengths far outweigh its shortcomings, especially compared to other newsgames that are essentially trivia exercises disguised as simulations. One screen, faced when making the decision on how far to live from a city center in order to balance rent against gas costs, is reminiscent of more complex gamey infographics such as the Buy/Rent Calculator
. The game ends on a somewhat dark note--even when one avoids bankruptcy, it reminds players that rent is due the next day--and then provides an easy link for a modest donation via PayPal to help support the Urban Ministries of Durham. The only way to feel really secure by the end of the session is to have asked for help from friends every time it's an option, making Spent a procedural rhetorical argument about the intense importance of having some social connections to draw on in times of difficulty (which in turn reinforces the importance of organizations such as UMD, which gives aid to those who have no such social safety net).