Imagine being a single parent who has just lost a job and house and who has spent nearly the entirety of the savings account while trying to find a job.  You’re trying to get through a month without going broke, making tradeoffs and choices that are often heart-breaking.  You frequently have to ask for assistance from friends and family as you try to avoid being one of millions who have to turn to community programs such as those offered by the Urban Ministries of Durham, one of partners behind this unusual game.  If you are lucky and make good (but difficult) choices, you can succeed.  But one virtual roll of the dice can put you out of the game and (virtually) homeless.

What It Is

Spent is one of the few financial literacy games that focuses not on the traditional goal of increasing knowledge and habits to ensure one’s own personal financial health (Johnson, 2012) but on critical financial literacy, placing the player in someone else’s role in order to increase awareness of how easily one major event can tip us out of the middle class.  And how hard it is to scramble back.

Similar to the Sims challenge inspired by the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, this casual game puts the player in the role of someone who is struggling to make ends meet.  And as Gawker’s series on the well-educated, hard working unemployed population shows, even people who have done all the right things can be caught in a downward spiral leading to the streets.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  First off, it’s hard.  You have to spend carefully and make shrewd choices early in the game to have any hope of stretching your $1000 starting balance to the end of the month, even if you do manage to stay employed and get paid by mid-month.  Even having studied financial literacy (and having worked in the financial industry), I had to stop, think, and weigh relative risks, hoping the random numbers fell my way.

The choices are realistic.  All of the scenarios given during the hour that I played are events that I can imagine happening – and many have happened to friends who, while unemployed, have been put in similar positions.  The tradeoffs between living close to work vs. finding affordable housing are classic – and the lack of public transportation is often a barrier to people trying to get out of the hole.

Information is provided in manageable chunks.  As the month progresses and choices made, short informational “sound bites” follow each decision, further explaining how the cycle of poverty reinforces itself, trapping people into situations despite their best efforts.  The information is kept sufficiently short that it is valuable and educational without becoming overwhelming.

It is short.  Don’t laugh.  I played through two rounds in about an hour and a half, which is just right for a casual game designed to provide a moderately immersive role playing experience on a difficult topic.  This could realistically be used in a classroom setting if you have students try to play the game within a class period, making choices without too much analysis, and then reflecting upon the experience out of class or during the next class session.

Room for Improvement

While the working poor often do suffer from cascading crises, often the result of prior decisions (such as not paying for health insurance or putting off having car repairs completed professionally), the frequency of these occurrences in the game detracted from the otherwise realistic and believable scenarios.  It would have seemed more realistic to have players go through a couple of months in which they might succeed one month by scrimping on health insurance or food but suffer the consequences of such choices by becoming ill and having to pay out of pocket costs at the doctor’s office.

Overall, it is a very engaging game and one that has potential for informing players and sparking a discussion on the real trajectories that lead to homelessness and poverty.