The video games I grew up with involved dodging bullets, lasers, ninjas, and occasionally Mike Tyson. In Spent, the object is to avoid becoming homeless.

Spent is an outreach project from Urban Ministries of Durham, a charity based in Durham, North Carolina dedicated toward giving basic essentials to the poor and homeless. The game paints a grim picture of life for people who can barely keep a place to live. The object is to make it 30 days without running out of money. At the start of the game, you’re down to your last $1,000, and you need to find a job and an apartment. A bad economy means slim pickings for both. Cheaper rent means living farther away from work, which increases both your fuel costs as well as the wear and tear on your car.

Like a computerized embodiment of Murphy’s Law, Spent confronts you with one misfortune after another. To win, you have to make a series of hard choices that have no apparent right answer. For example, you wake up one morning to find that someone has siphoned all the gas from your car. Do you take three buses (and three hours) to show up for work late? Or just call in sick and miss out on a day’s wages? (Your low-level temp job doesn’t give paid sick days.) What do you do when your kid is about to fail his math course unless he gets help? Paying $50 for a tutor means not being able to fix your car, which is falling to pieces because of your marathon commute to work every day. I played three rounds of Spent and successfully made it to the end of the month twice. After completing a winning round with $98 left to my name, the game reminded me, “And your rent’s due again. What are you going to do next month?”

I feel fortunate that I’ve never been in such dire straits as those presented in Spent. The game does a good job of giving a sense of the desperation felt by people who live on the fringes. Spent would be a good addition to an economics or social studies class to illustrate the effects of a recession, or to show how some of our nation’s homeless got that way.


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