What an Online Game Can Teach You About Poverty

The challenge: You're a single parent who has lost your house and job and you've got $1,000 to your name.
The challenge: You're a single parent who has lost your house and job and you've got $1,000 to your name. Play the game Spent. (Alamy)


During an ice storm last month that kept U.S. Rep. David Price grounded at his home in his Durham, N.C., the 72-year-old Democratic legislator took 10 minutes out of his day to play Spent, an online game created by an unusual partnership in his district.

The game isn't about angry birds, but impoverished Americans - and the economic realities they face.

Game About Tough Realities of the Poor

The challenge: You're a single parent who has lost your house and job and you've got $1,000 to your name. Can you choose well enough among your limited options for housing, transportation, food and medical care to make it to the end of the month?

Spent video game
Spent video game

Spent requires you to deal with the wrenching choices Americans in poverty routinely encounter, from juggling expenses to figuring out whether you can afford to help an elderly parent buy life-saving medication.

In one scenario, you have two bills to pay, but only enough money for one. Do you ignore the other bill or swallow your pride and post a request to borrow money from friends on Facebook?

Millions Have Played

Since it went online in 2011, more than 2 million people have played Spent, a joint project of McKinney ad agency and Urban Ministries of Durham, which runs a homeless shelter that has housed more than 1,300 people in the past year. Schools and colleges also use the game in their curriculum and it has been integrated into some textbooks.

Spent is also featured in Pound Foolish, a new book by Helaine Olen about the failings of the personal finance industry to take into account the growing economic pressures on Americans in the last three decades.

Patrice Nelson, executive director of Urban Ministries, says the game was designed "to educate people to the fact that one missed paycheck, a car accident, a lack of health insurance, unemployment or having to take a job below your previous pay level can end up creating a scenario that you would never have imagined."

One Congressman's Experience

How did Representative Price do? Epic fail.

"I ran out of money in nine days," he says. His main budget buster: paying for health care. "Having a car accident didn't help," Price adds.

And, he noted, if the game had assumed the person was over 50, the results would have been even worse. "The cost of health care would have been astronomical," he says. "It would be a nonstarter."

Fiscal Cliffs, Over-50 Edition

Though Congress may have addressed its fiscal cliff, millions of poor Americans, especially older Americans, face their own fiscal cliffs daily.

As Next Avenue has reported, the biggest jump in U.S. poverty rates from 2001 to 2009 was among people 50 to 64, driven by layoffs and reduced salaries for those able to find work, according to research by Sudipto Banerjee of the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

The fact that most people in this group can't rely on Social Security and are too young to qualify for Medicare adds to their financial squeeze. (Poverty levels are highest for people 85 and older, in general, with soaring medical expenses taking up about one-fifth of their budgets.)

Inspiration for the Game

For most Americans, however, choosing between health care and a mortgage or rent payment is an unfamiliar experience.

That's what inspired Spent's co-creator Jenny Nicholson, a copywriter at McKinney, to use gaming and social media as a way of immersing players into a world she knows well. Raised by a single mother in California, Nicholson grew up in poverty and used her own experience, along with extensive case histories from the Durham Ministries, to sketch out realistic scenarios for the online game.

Nicholson says it's easy, though incorrect, for people who aren't impoverished to think those in poverty are looking for handouts. "It takes a tremendous amount of energy just to keep at square one and not fall back," she says.

The game's 30-day time frame makes Spent a little less than 100 percent realistic. All the disaster-generating scenarios players encounter generally wouldn't occur within a month. "But I've seen many happen within three months," Nelson says. "You'll find things start rippling out of control as financial disasters accumulate."

Educating Congress

There's now a petition to get members of Congress to play Spent; nearly 2,000 people have signed it. Price believes his fellow lawmakers should give the game a try.

"I think it would be a very good thing for members of Congress to play it, and legislators at the state level, too," he says. "It's a challenge to dramatize and get attention for these issues. Something like Spent really could help."

More from Next Avenue:
More Americans Are Entering Poverty as They Age
The Retirement Crisis Facing Blacks and Latinos
The Graying Population: One Gigantic Worry