Spent: The Poverty Simulator that Hits Close to Home

Did you ever want to just get away like in those old Calgon commercials? Well, if the game Spent were a bath powder, the only people you would see soaking in this caustic substance would be those poor victims Dexter kept tucked away in his oil drums. No joke. Created by McKinney for Durham Urban Ministries, Spent provides a glimpse of the hardships associated with living at or below the poverty line. In this game, players attempt to make limited funds cover living expenses such as rent, groceries, travel expenses to and from work, and a variety of unexpected bills that pop up along the way. Spent is just about as close to hard-nosed adulting as one can get – that is if you’re fortunate enough to have internet access, electricity, and a computer to play this real-world simulation.

When I learned that some of my English tutees were going to play this game as part of their lesson on the U.S. housing crisis and poverty, I figured, “Hey, I’m broke and have been trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents my whole life. I should do well at this.” Little did I know – no this isn’t Stranger than Fiction, though I could probably write a book about that phrase – that even my long-lived experience would fail to carry me through 30 days on my first attempt. This brutal world sim is realistic enough that it may even lead one to question whether some deranged computer like Kubrick’s HAL 9000 or Valve’s GLaDOS created the game to torture humans.

The decisions Spent presents to players ring true to Yogi Berra’s saying, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime no more.” Indeed, a dollar doesn’t cover much in this game. Just as in good old reality, Spent forces players to work crappy, low paying jobs, pay rent that’s just too damn high, and risk getting fired for staying home to take care of a sick child. Oh, but don’t worry. If you must stay home to take care of the kid, you do get the chance to recoup lost funds. The player is given the opportunity to smash the germ-ridden rascal’s piggy bank to recover $12.38. In addition, the player can also steal the child’s $10 birthday card – just enough money to cover the gas needed to get to the plasma collection center and the grocery store (better stock up on that dollar ramen). While I did not choose to rob the kid’s bank or take the birthday card money, I can see how those options become tempting when one is trying to find out if there are separate ends, let alone trying to make those ends meet.

Perhaps the makers of this game will find it suitable to create a Christmas-themed edition. Oh, what fun we’ll have telling the little ones that Santa has to skip over our house this year because of that impromptu trip to the vet after the cat chewed on the frayed Christmas tree light cord and electrocuted itself – or better yet, you have to tell the kids that if they see Santa in the house, they better shoot his ass because it’s just the crackhead from up the street dressed as Santa, and he has broken in to steal the $45 worth of Christmas presents you were able to buy.

All in all, this simulation serves as a good introduction to the harsh realities experienced by folks who must live paycheck to paycheck. While some of my comments are tongue in cheek, it is important to remember that this game tries to teach a tough lesson. Spent serves as a reminder that life is hard, and we should not take what we have for granted. No matter how bad we think our lives are, the likelihood exists that someone somewhere – maybe even a neighbor – is facing tougher decisions.