Spent: Webtext of the Month

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Spoiler alert: In my review of this month’s webtext, I reveal some surprises that the webtext has to offer. I’ll indicate in the body of my text when I’m about to offer one of these spoilers (and a spoiler within a spoiler: the video I’ve embedded is a walkthrough of the webtext, so if you’d like a totally pure experience of accessing the text, don’t watch the video!).

playspent.org

In honor of the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative’s upcoming Blog Carnival on Social Justice and Gaming, I decided to explore socially conscious games on the Web! Awareness-raising, civic-minded games, which put the player into an uncomfortable role or create a troubling game mechanic have fascinated me since I heard Ian Bogost speak several years ago at my university’s campus (UC Davis) about developing games for social activism and awareness through Persuasive Games, a company he co-founded.

At the time, I was struck both by how ingenious and obvious the idea seemed; why wouldn’t we use something as immersive as a game to invest players in better understanding social concerns?

Developers of all stripes have created socially conscious games, and there exist whole networks of individuals invested specifically in creating free and accessible browser-based games (Other examples include Purposeful Games for Social Change and Darfur is Dying).

These were the kinds of games that appealed to me, primarily because I wanted to explore games that anyone, regardless of whether they own a fancy video game console or not, could play. I recognize, of course, that owning a computer and being able to play a digital game at all is its own kind of privilege, but I also assume that more individuals own a Wi-Fi enabled device of some kind than a video game console.

I decided to play Spent, a game conceived in 2011 by the Urban Ministries of Durham and developed in partnership with McKinney, an advertisement agency also based in Durham, NC. The premise of Spent is simple: you take on the role of an individual who has just lost a job and who no longer owns a home. Your task is to find a new job and live for a month without getting to $0 in your bank account.

At this point, if you don’t want the experience ruined for you, I’d suggest heading over to Spent right now and just diving into the experience for yourself.  Give yourself about 30 minutes to play through the game. You’ll likely be tempted to play it a few times (I certainly was and, er, did). It is undeniably, and bizarrely, addictive to play through different scenarios in the game, to imagine yourself choosing different jobs and homes, responding to the various scenarios that impoverished and homeless individuals face every day.

I will say in advance that gamifying poverty is troubling; it’s meant to be. What might seem like a diversion as a player is a reality for thousands of individuals. With that said, I don’t know that there’s anything much more powerful than getting into another person’s shoes and having to make tough choices, choices you may not have ever considered before, for yourself.

*Spoilers ahead!* 

OK, so if you’re reading at this point, you’re prepared to have the game spoiled for you. You’ve been warned!

I thought that the the best way I could communicate and share my experience of Spent would be through video. A lot of YouTubers devote channels to posting their own “walkthroughs” of video games (individuals like PewDiePie make millions off of doing just this) and it seemed appropriate to try a walk through of my own. To protect my pride a little bit, I have to say that filming my own walk through was a big challenge! When I first recorded the walk through, it was 30 minutes long (that is, way too long for anyone visiting the DRC to watch!). So, I wound up editing the walk through in Camtasia to get it down to the 13 minutes it is at now. So, the transitions are a bit rocky, but I wanted to show all of the highlights and give readers a sense of the game play without, you know, showing the entire game. That said, I make it through to the end of the game in the video, so if you don’t want to see how it ends, don’t watch the video! If you are curious, however, here are my reactions (and my struggle)!

By the end of my experience recording and playing this game, I found myself not necessarily compelled to take action, but feeling much more empathetic for individuals who struggle financially and with the constraints that exist for low-earning laborers today. There are a lot of choices I had to make in the game that I had never had to make in my own life. At times, I found myself making choices in the game that I would never want to make in real life.

At first, I blamed these choices on the game’s mechanics; I knew that, in order to “win” the game, I had to care primarily about the amount in my bank account. However, it struck me that if I were struggling in the scenario that game provides, I would likely still make most choices based on my bank account. The game made me consider how much debt I would take on, how many favors I would request, and how much I would seek out help from others in order to make it through a month of living.

This game would be a great addition to a service-learning composition course or a class on labor and social justice in the U.S. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I spent an entire day tinkering around with it.

About Author(s)

Jenae Cohn is a PhD candidate in English and Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies at UC Davis. Her research explores how materialities of reading and writing technologies affect established and emerging writers' perceptions of reading and writing experiences. She works in her university's WAC program as a graduate writing fellow and also serves as a HASTAC Scholar. She blogs irregularly at www.jenaecohn.net and to get herself writing, she lights candles and dons the fuzziest of socks.

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