New game tests your ability to make it on $1,000 for a month

Screen shot of the game "SPENT"

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: What if I told you you had to make it through this month with only $1,000 for everything -- food, shelter, clothing. That's just slightly over the federal poverty level for a single person. Could you make it?

You're asked to imagine that reality in a new online game called "SPENT." It's a joint effort by the ad agency McKinney and Urban Ministries of Durham, N.C. You can check it out while you listen to this at playspent.org. And for a tour of sorts I'm joined by Patrice Nelson, the executive director of Urban Ministries. Welcome.

Patrice Nelson: Thank you very much.

Vigeland: Let's go through the game a little bit. The first thing that you see is that over 14 million Americans are homeless now, imagine you are one of them. Your savings are gone, you've lost your house, and you're down to your last $1,000 and it asks can you make it through the month. So you can either exit at that point or your other option is to find a job. So I'm going to click on that now. The first thing I see is that I'm running out money fast. And then it asks me to click on a job and the options there for me are...

Nelson: Restaurant worker, a temp, or a warehouse worker.

Vigeland: OK. So let's see, what should we choose? How about a warehouse worker?

Nelson: I usually choose warehouse worker, too. That's the highest salary of all of them, so you want the best shot.

Vigeland: It is.

Nelson: But for the warehouse worker, I think you may also have to buy a uniform.

Vigeland: You do indeed, and that's going to cost me $275 -- reducing my weekly paycheck by about $70. And what you do throughout this is once somebody makes a choice, you reveal to them not only what that means for their paycheck, but also some of the ramifications of those choices.

Nelson: Yes. It becomes obvious that some of the choices we make are complicated and there are no easy answers.

Vigeland: Can you give us a wrap up of the major choices that we have to make throughout the month here?

Nelson: The first choice you have to make is where are you going to live -- whether you want to live far away where the rent is going to be cheaper, but then your gas prices are going to be higher, or you're going to live close in, well the opposite will be true. Your rent will be higher. And then once you decide where you're going to live, you have to pay your rent and then you have an option -- once you've started your job -- of deciding whether you want to opt in or out of health insurance.

Vigeland: You mentioned choosing how far away from your workplace you're going to live and this is a sliding scale, so I'm going to choose to live, oh let's say, 40 miles away. That means, of course, that I'm paying more in gas, but my rent's going to be lower. So now my total cost is going to be $782 total a month. You use this as a point in time to talk about the lack of affordable housing.

Nelson: And that's one of the things I really appreciate about the game and the way McKinney has worked with us to include statistics and important facts on homelessness and on affordability in our community.

Vigeland: There also seems to be instruction in here for people who might be going through this. In the game, I got a call from a collection agency and my choice was either to return that call or hang up.

Nelson: And that is the point of the game that is very interesting to me. I've answered the call and then I've also hung up, but that bill is still there.

Vigeland: Right. Now I'm not going to go through all of these days, but I made it to the end of the month with $14. But I made a lot of sacrifices, most of them at the expense of my children. For example, I didn't let them buy ice cream from the ice cream truck. And I made them get the reduced lunch program at school instead of giving them money.

Nelson: I always choose that the kid would get the lunch program as well, but there is a stigma attached unfortunately. And there is something to pushing that button that helps the person who's playing the game to actually share in being able to feel what that's like.

Vigeland: Yeah, and in a really strange way. I mean, obviously there's no way to compare playing this game to actually going through this, but I did. I felt terrible that I couldn't let my kid have a little thing of ice cream from the ice cream truck.

Nelson: But that's reality. The game does a very good job of showing what the reality is. And if you're faced with that reality, even over two months time, it becomes very stressful and you do feel spent.

Vigeland: That was Patrice Nelson with Urban Ministries of Durham. It's a nonprofit organization that supports that city's homeless population. We have a link to the game "SPENT." Click here to play it.

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