In 2011, a new videogame premiered that not many expected would be a hit. The game is called Spent and it is about surviving homelessness.
Spent is a collaboration between Urban Ministries of Durham and the interactive firm, McKinney.
"When we first launched SPENT, my simple hope was that it would help affluent people in our local metro area understand a little better the wrenching choices their very poor neighbors face every day," said Patrice Nelson, Executive Director of the Urban Ministries of Durham. "But it's exceeded our wildest expectation, touching millions of people worldwide."
The organization reports that since 2011, the game has been played more than 4 million times by close to 2 million people in 218 countries.
This week a mobile version for phones and tablets launched.
Here's our original story, reported by Leoneda Inge:
North Carolina has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation during this recent economic downturn. Families have had to be strategic about paying rent and buying food while looking for work. It’s almost like a real-life game of chance – one that’s extremely hard to win. Hard life lessons are what spurred the national advertising agency – McKinney – to create an online game to bring attention to the needy on behalf of Urban Ministries of Durham.
The new online game SPENT hit the web two weeks ago. And already nearly 350,000 people have played – people from all around the world. And now it’s my turn. The webpage opens to a black screen with this statement written in white: "Urban Ministries of Durham serves over 6,000 people every year. But you’d never need help, right?"
Below in bright orange is the challenge – it reads “Prove It.” I accepted the challenge.
The opening music is a little scary. But what’s scarier are the statements blowing toward you – “Fourteen million Americans are unemployed. Now imagine you’re one of them. Your savings are gone, you’ve lost your house, and you’re down to your last one-thousand dollars. Can you make it through the month?"
Inge: "Umm. So I have to click ‘find a job?"
Sarah Fowler: "Or exit. Exit means you just give up (laughter)"
Inge: "I’m pushing to find a job."
I had a lot of help playing SPENT. Sarah Fowler looked over my shoulder – laughing now and then and questioning some of my decisions. She lived at Urban Ministries for about a year trying to get her life back together. She’s had a full time job at Whole Foods for the past four years.
Fowler: "At first I was a little insulted when I was told about the game. I didn’t like the idea there was some game about homelessness because it hit really close to home. But when I played the game, I was really impressed by the fact that they shoot in, when you answer questions, they give you facts."
That was the idea of the game’s creator at McKinney Advertising Agency. Jenny Nicholson is a copy writer at McKinney. She says some of her own life circumstances are played out in the game. She remembers living on $900 a month with her mom and sister.
Jenny Nicholson: "One thing that I know I have heard a lot is that people challenge the fact that people who are poor tend to be overweight. And I’ve heard people say things like, well obviously they can’t be too poor if they have that money to eat that much. But the truth is, a lot of times people who don’t have a lot of money end up being forced to make poor nutritional choices because healthy food is expensive."
Yes – SPENT sends you to the grocery story. Gotta eat!
Inge: " Let’s see. Well spaghetti goes a ways. Wait a minute, how much money do I have to spend? Oh, Ramen noodles, I don’t like Ramen noodles! People like peanut butter.
Fowler: " It’s a good source of protein, peanut butter."
In order to buy food – you have to get a job. The three choices the game offers are a job as a Temporary Worker, a Restaurant Server or a Warehouse Worker. I failed the typing test – so the temp job was out. Food, car insurance, health care, gasoline – my new uniform for work – the game SPENT shows – life in these down times can be overwhelming. Patrice Nelson is the Executive Director of Urban Ministries of Durham. She says SPENT has been more successful than she imagined. Nelson says the goal is to broaden awareness.
Patrice Nelson: "We have moms with young kids, people who are at work right now, people who have been recently laid off and are here. We have vets who are here, people who have medical disabilities. There are a variety of needs and we need people to understand the breath of the problem so we can come up with a solution that is broad enough to encompass it."
And SPENT is reaching out to a whole new group of people who didn’t know anything about Urban Ministries. Young people, who don’t use traditional media to get their information. Jenny Nicholson of McKinney says her favorite part about the online game is the ability to turn to Facebook and ask a friend for help.
Nicholson: "That was one of the things we learned from our feeds making Farmville requests – people have no problem asking friends to help them with these virtual farms and things like that. And we thought, a big part of being in a tight situation, is that you have to ask for help."
And I did, twice. But I made it to the end:
Inge: "Congratulations! You made it to the end of the month, your balance is $108 and your rent is due again. What are you going to do next month?"
SPENT is so popular – McKinney is considering formulating the game for other organizations serving the needy.