The Bleak Despair Of Abject Poverty In Video Game Form

The Bleak Despair Of Abject Poverty In Video Game Form
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You’ve lost your job, your house, and your savings are completely gone. Can you survive for a month on $US1000? That’s the challenge put forth in the game Spent. Are you up to it?

For many of us, poverty is something that happens to other people. We have comfortable jobs, reliable transportation, good health insurance, and get our bills paid on time. We believe that even if we lost our job tomorrow, we’d work something out, and everything would be okay.

But what if it isn’t OK? What if you find yourself homeless and jobless, trying to support yourself and a child on a mere $US1000? Could you recover?

It’s harder than it seems.

Created by McKinney for non-profit charity organisation Urban Ministries of Durham, North Carolina, Spent is a text-heavy flash game that places players in a desperate situation.

As the game begins the player is given $US1000 and tasked with finding a place to live and a job to pay the bills. The players has to weigh the distance from work with the amount of gas it will take to drive back and forth. The car is the only luxury afforded the player, and even that can be taken away.

Three job opportunities are presented: waiter, shipping company warehouse worker and office temp. The most cushy of the three, becoming an office temp requires a typing test, which I failed in my initial play through. Instead, I took a job at the warehouse.

With about $US1200 coming in per month and rent of only $US780, things were looking up. Then life happened.

Do I want to opt-in for health insurance at the ridiculous family rate, or just hope I stay healthy? When my child’s grades start failing, do I purchase a tutor, or let him struggle? When my car registration comes up, do I pay it, or chance being pulled over? When my cat gets sick, do I pay the vet $US200 to fix it, $US50 to put it down, or simply let it suffer?

As the month progresses, the twisting feeling in your gut grows more pronounced. This is a game you cannot win. Not without making big sacrifices.

Or turning to your friends.

Spent includes Facebook ties, so players can make a pleas to their friends for help. You can ask them to help store things from your house that won’t fit in your small apartment, or help teaching your child how to handle maths better. The feature tries to communicate the humble feeling of having to reach out to others for help.

I was too proud, and at the end of the month I had $US600 left, and my rent was due.

I feel horrible after playing spent. I’ve been in similar situations in the past, having to choose electricity over gas (electricity, of course, for the gaming), or having a sick animal that I couldn’t afford to get proper care for. These are heart-wrenching situations.

And millions of Americans deal with them every day.

The point of Spent is to make people aware, not only of the issues facing poverty-stricken Americans, but how difficult it is to ask for help when you find yourself in such a situation. Maybe knowing how hard it is to ask will make it easier to give.

For some, this is a bleak reminder of a place we never want to be again.

Hit up the link below to see how you fare.

Play Spent [Urban Ministries of Durham – Thanks JungleToad]


  • As somebody who has gone through some tough and trying financial times, I find myself extremely moved by this simple game. It’s interesting how some of the most simple and artistic games can have some of the biggest impacts. (Such as that ‘sniper’ game that only let you play once. Can’t remember what it was called.)

  • This was an interesting idea in theory, but in reality I found the execution lacking. Indeed, the game was over simplified and so obviously designed to make you fail to the point where it might actually be counter-productive. The incredible run of bad luck was one thing, but as the game wore on it seemed to be saying to me that the only way you could fall into (and stay) in poverty was to make, and continue to make, poor choices, and that good sense and planning ahead is always rewarded with bad luck, so why try? Not exactly what the message I think they wanted to convey.

    To be honest, I started to actively resent the way it forced me to make bad decisions. If I pay the high rent to live in the city within walking distance to my work and my kid’s school, why on earth do I still have a car? The thing’s a giant money sink that I could flog off instead and put the money into savings for future emergencies, like the dental scenario, or my kid’s school needs. Why am I forced to buy even the crummy, pre-processed, unhealthy food in order to feed my family when I took one look at the fresh ingredients on offer and thought: hey, I can make a dozen different balanced meals with those ingredients, even without being able to afford meat. Nuts are cheap, after all, and are a great source of protein. Or is my hypothetical kid suddenly going to develop a life-threatening peanut allergy too? 😛

    I guess I’m saying that, if the point of the game is to drive home to people like me – comfortably middle class and relatively well educated – the trap of poverty and just how difficult it is to climb out of the pit, it needs to have a different starting point. Chart the descent *into* poverty for someone who is middle-class, educated and normally has marketable skills. A severe medical emergency that leaves your partner unable to work and your family bankrupt, unable to meet your mortgage payments, seems like a plausible way to go.

    • I played this when it was featured on RPS and your response seemed to be in line with the general consensus. The developers’ hearts were in the right place, and while it seems may seem silly and missing the point to nitpick game mechanics for something about a much larger, more important issue, it still ended up diluting the message and lessening the impact the game could’ve had.

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