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The Gamification of Poverty

A game with a message points the way to a future in which games are one of the best ways to teach ourselves just about anything.

I’ve been unemployed for just one month, and already I’ve sent my only child to school crying because other kids make fun of him for being on the free lunch program, driven away from a fender bender with a parked car because I didn’t have the money to pay for the accident (luckily no one was around), been fired from my temp job for talking to a union organizer, put my kid’s dog to sleep because we couldn’t afford its medical care, and applied for food stamps—which won’t arrive until next month.

The game Spent is the Kobayashi Maru of optimization problems—just like real poverty.

I’m not proud of myself, but this is what it takes to survive as a poor person in America—and now I know, because I played the game Spent, designed by Jenny Nicholson, herself once a child who grew up in poverty. Sponsored by the advertising firm McKinney and Urban Ministries of Durham, which helps people in poverty, Spent is designed to show that when you have no money, you have to make really hard choices. Choices that affect your health (at one point I neglect to go to the doctor after feeling chest pains) your sanity (at another, I don’t go out with friends because I can’t afford a babysitter) and your relationship with the people you love (I’m pretty sure that if my kid ever climbs out of poverty, he’s going to spend a good portion of his income on therapy after I put down his pet).

Spent isn’t just a game that illustrates the power of the interactive medium to help activists get their message across. In a larger sense, and in a way that perhaps no other medium can match, it illustrates that what games can accomplish is empathy.

Games, it turns out, aren’t necessarily about entertainment. Like a good book, they’re about immersion. It’s easy, when reading an account of someone else’s hard luck, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, to imagine that by dint of your superior talents and fortitude, you would avoid the worst of what befell someone else. But in a game, there is no other—there’s just you, making choices and taking responsibility for them.

In playing Spent, I felt lucky; I managed to make it through the month without having to ask any of my friends for money (on Facebook, naturally). But because I was fired for my collectivist leanings—i.e., that union rep I talked to in the parking lot around day 20—I made it to the end of the month with no money left over to pay next month’s rent.

Playing the game also made me realize that I’m lucky in other ways, and that the secret asset I carried through the month was my education and innate frugality—two things I probably wouldn’t have if I had been raised in poverty and were actually stressed out by its daily assault. The implication, of course, is that a lack of these things are one of the ways poverty perpetuates itself from one generation to the next. That was an emergent property of playing the game—a set of conclusions I’m not sure I would have arrived at had I merely read an article on the subject of poverty.

Aside from immersion, emergent properties are what software does best. Game designers talk about discovering capabilities they didn’t know their game engines had, and then getting excited about their work all over again. This is something the best literature can accomplish, but games are arguably much more accessible.

Games are also more efficient. Spent only takes about five minutes to complete, but I dare anyone, especially anyone with a kid, to play it and not have a visceral emotional reaction to the choices it forces you to make. It’s rare that even video can have such an effect on our psyche in such a short time.

In short, Spent feels like more than just a paragon of the narrow genre of games that aim at consciousness raising—it’s also a powerful illustration of the potential of games to become core to how our civilization educates itself at every level.

If you’ve read this far, it’s worth playing the game Spent. Even in terms of its mechanics, it’s surprisingly engaging.

[via Fast Company]

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