Online Survival Game All Too Real For Many Americans Could you live on a thousand dollars a month? In the current economy, many Americans are doing so. But the question is also the premise of a new online game called "Spent." Players start out homeless and unemployed, and are forced to make tough choices to survive the month on a thousand dollars. The game is commissioned by Urban Ministries, a North Carolina organization that provides homeless services. Host Michel Martin speaks, Patrice Nelson, who leads the group, about what she hopes players will learn from the game.
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Online Survival Game All Too Real For Many Americans

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Online Survival Game All Too Real For Many Americans

Online Survival Game All Too Real For Many Americans

Online Survival Game All Too Real For Many Americans

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Could you live on a thousand dollars a month? In the current economy, many Americans are doing so. But the question is also the premise of a new online game called "Spent." Players start out homeless and unemployed, and are forced to make tough choices to survive the month on a thousand dollars. The game is commissioned by Urban Ministries, a North Carolina organization that provides homeless services. Host Michel Martin speaks, Patrice Nelson, who leads the group, about what she hopes players will learn from the game.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

We've been talking about gas prices and how that has caused many people to pinch their pennies. But what if you had to pinch pennies all the time? There's a new online game that's certain to make you think twice about what it's like to live at or near the poverty line. The game was created by an ad agency and a nonprofit group called Urban Ministries of Durham. It's called "Spent." To find out more about "Spent" we've called Patrice Nelson. She's executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. Patrice Nelson is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

PATRICE NELSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: How did you get the idea for this game?

NELSON: Urban Ministries of Durham has been working on trying to build awareness in a variety of different ways. And we are in partnership with McKinney, which is an ad agency based in Durham. And over the past three years we've done a variety of different campaigns with them. And we went to them to ask them to develop more posters for us.

And they came back and said, actually, this year, we think it would be good to try something different, to use new technology, new techniques to build awareness with a new audience. And they came up with this game that incorporates social media and we tried it and we liked it.

MARTIN: Well, so the game asks a very pointed question. It asks, can you make it through the month with a thousand dollars? You know, you've lost your house, you're down to a thousand dollars, you're running out of money, what do you do? So the first thing you do is try to find a job. And you're offered the choice of restaurant server, warehouse worker or temp. The temp says $9 an hour, sounds not bad. First thing you have to do is take a typing test. Let me try it and it's simple. You type a little sentence here. Let me see if I can do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

MARTIN: Let's see if I can do it. Whoa, it says my typing skills are insufficient for a position with the company. Oh well. I type every day, but somehow I can't get a job doing that. Let me see - let's go to warehouse worker, $9 an hour. That also seems pretty good. Let's see, I get the job, after everything's taken out, I'm only getting $300 a month. So I get the job, here's the first question: Would you like to opt in for health insurance? Your monthly premium is $275. But you're only taking home $306. I guess we're going to skip it.

NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: The premiums are often so high that many low-income workers opt out, just like you did. Let's hope you don't get sick. And since you're working with your body, guess what? That might be a possibility. Now it's the question, find a place to live. And here's where this loops into the earlier question of gas prices. The closer you live to work, the more expensive it is, so what you do, let's see, we'll go farther and farther out just to try to save money, but we are pretty far out now and you chose to live farther away from your job, so your rent is lower, but your gas costs are higher. Let's hope your car doesn't break down.

NELSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: It offers us a couple of other things. It says, your bathroom sink used to have a small leak, but now it has a big leak. You can't put it off any longer, what do you want to do? Your child has been invited to a birthday party, they need to bring a present, what do you want to do? Buy a present? Send your child without a present? Keep your child home from the party?

Patrice, what would you do? Tell me what to do.

NELSON: I actually bought the present.

MARTIN: You bought the present.

NELSON: I think the present in that case was about $10. But the issue with the game is just to recognize how difficult some of those choices are.

MARTIN: You know, one of the tricky things, I think, when I played this game the first time I went through it without you is that the choices became harder and harder. On the one hand, for example, it said that you've used your credit cards to fill some gaps in your cash flow. Then the bill becomes due, pay it or not pay it? I decided to pay it because that seemed like the right thing to do, but I ran out of money in the middle of the month.

MARTIN: Your children hear the bell for the ice cream truck and they want ice cream and you're down to your last couple bucks and you say no. So, tell me, what kind of feedback have you gotten on the game?

NELSON: People have actually been primarily very positive. I've gotten a lot of feedback from agencies around the country like ours that have asked to link into the game as a way for them to use it to educate people in their own communities. We play the game with people who are living in our shelter and quite honestly, they thought the game was pretty easy because they said that their situations are actually a lot tougher than the situations in the game.

We've played the game and talked to people who were recently out of work or who had been looking for jobs for a year or more. And those were the people whose situations, I think, closely resemble what's going on in the game.

MARTIN: I wonder if you could just talk to the fatigue factor you see with a lot of the people that you work with.

NELSON: You know, the game is called "Spent." And when we talked with McKinney about the title of the game, I think we agreed that it was an appropriate title because it represents where you are financially, but also where, over time, people are emotionally. This game represents, really, those people who are trying to hang in there.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that the only people who are going to play this game are the people who are already sympathetic?

NELSON: One of the things that I think is fascinating about the game is how many people have played it just in the first couple of weeks. A million and a half times the game has been played by 350,000 people and the number is going up daily. And there are people who will look at it and say, well, this is just some other people's situation. But I think it is great that the game has started a conversation amongst people who would not normally be dealing with issues of homelessness and poverty.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, do you mind if I ask, how far did you get?

NELSON: I've actually played the game many times. Funny, my father played the game and ended up with $1,300 at the end of the game, even though he'd started with a thousand dollars. And my sister laughed and said, he wouldn't give his mother the medicine, he ran away from the parked cars. He didn't pay any of his bills. So people make all kinds of choices.

MARTIN: Really? Is that, in fact, how he did it? He just didn't pay any of his bills.

NELSON: Yeah. No.

MARTIN: He just lived like a grifter.

NELSON: He just - pretty much. Yeah, nice going, Dad.

MARTIN: Patrice Nelson is executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. She joined us from member station WUNC in Durham. The game is called "Spent" and if you want to play the game yourself, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the programs page and then on TELL ME MORE. Patrice Nelson, thanks so much for joining us.

NELSON: Thank you very much.

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