Live Life Below The Poverty Line By Playing Spent

As more and more people join the ranks of America’s poor, it might behoove the rest of us to gain a little empathy. A new web-based game gives a least a little insight into what that life is like.



It’s a simple question: what is it like to be poor in the U.S.? You may already know if you earn less than $11,139 each year, the official poverty threshold. Last year, more than two million people
(many once middle-class) joined the 44 million Americans living in
poverty, the most since the U.S. Census Bureau started publishing
figures half a century ago.

But that leaves more than 250 million of us who have no idea, and that makes a difference when it comes to setting public policy, and creating a just economic system in America. Knowing how each of us can (or cannot) feed our families is
important. Now you can answer that question, in part, by playing the video game Spent.

Designed by Jenny Nicholson, the game was a chance for her to relive a childhood shuttled between Tennessee and California with her often destitute family making due with help from public assistance and private charity.  

“I grew up poor, but it’s even hard for me to remember what it’s like,” says Nicholson, a copywriter at the McKinney advertising agency, who ultimately worked her way through college. “The frustration, the endless battle were you take one step forward, and two steps back. When we talk about poverty and helping people in poverty, that gets lost. It’s not a matter of making the right decision, or making the smart choice. When you’re in that situation, there is no right choice.”


Spent casts players as a newly unemployed, middle-class worker searching for a job after the Great Recession. You face the next month with only $1,000 in the bank. When the financial math doesn’t add up, players face gut-wrenching decisions: do I pay for health care, or the rent? Fill up on gasoline or take your pet to the vet? Players must ask their friends though Facebook to borrow money in a crunch to see what’s it like to ask.

The choices are not hypothetical. The game mirrors the lives of those left homeless or unemployed at the Urban Ministries of Durham, which sponsored the game, as well as Nicholson’s own life. Spent has struck a chord: more than 1.5 million people have played Spent in 196 countries, and it continues to grow in popularity.

Many who play the game bring middle class sensibilities the first time they play: “They think, ‘Of course I’m going to take care of my dog, of course I’m going to help my friend,'” says Nicholson. “Then they run out of money on day five, and they start adjusting their choices.” In real life, it seems, good people sometimes have to make bad choices.

Think you can do better? Prove it: Play Spent. McKinney has already issued the same challenge to every member of Congress.  And after you play, think about donating here.

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)