Spent, A Review Of Virtual Poverty: It Plays Like The Most Depressing MasterCard Ad Ever

by Ezra Fox on August 5, 2011

A good game can make you feel something. Your pulse rises as you walk into a dark alley with only 4 bullets left in your clip, knowing that a zombie will pop out at you at any second. When it suddenly latches onto your neck and feasts on your delicious polygonal flesh, you scream like a small child. (Not me, though. Definitely not me.)

So if nothing else, I have to give Spent kudos for making me feel something. Even if that something was “utterly depressed.”

Spent is technically a game, but it’s more of a poverty simulation. You’ve lost your job. You’ve lost your home. You have $1000 to your name. You need to survive for one month. There are no zombie hordes, so that’s a plus, but almost everything else is out to get you. It’s like playing Monopoly, except all the chance and community chest cards are terrible.

It’s a sad world that we’re diving into here.

The game starts with you losing your job and your savings. You can either “Get a job” or “Exit.” Comfortingly, “Exit” only just sounds like your character is committing suicide. It actually just takes you to the end screen and gives you the chance volunteer your time or to donate $5 to the Urban Ministries of Durham, the non-profit that made the game. The only problem with the donation request is that the game so effectively convinces you that you’re poor, giving $5 to charity seems like an extravagance.

If you choose to get a job, you start with a choice… choice being relative here. You can be a restaurant server ($8 an hour), a warehouse worker ($9 an hour), or a temp (also $9 an hour). To become a temp you have to pass a short typing exam and type at least 55 words per minute. I failed it and restarted the game several times in a row, until I copied and pasted the text in the box, achieving a score of roughly 1800 words per minute. Despite being superhuman, I received no bonuses, and still had my hours cut later in the month.

Ultimately, temping’s no better than working at the warehouse. Regardless of where you work the game stresses how difficult it is to land on your feet when you have so many expenses and so little income. College loans, car payments, credit card debt… the only way to seemingly stop the debt is to go back in time with a time machine, which, coincidentally, I also can’t afford.

As soon as you get a job you have to decide whether to opt in to health insurance. It’s $275 a month and with the “good” jobs you’re only making $1,224 after taxes. If you opt out of insurance, the cost of repairing future health problems will sky-rocket. The first time playing I opted in and enjoyed a $20 checkup when I had heart problems. It turned out I was fine. I was actually annoyed that I wasn’t dying and got health insurance for nothing. I also started wishing I lived in Canada, which maybe wasn’t the point of the game.

Next, you have to decide where to live, paying more for rent if you live in the city, or for transportation if you live farther away. Both are terrible options. In one game I live in the city and bleed rent money, and the next time I pick the simple life and hemorrhage transportation costs.

That’s pretty much how the game goes. You’re faced with two options, and they’re both awful. Nothing good happens to you for the next 30 days. Your lifelines, which you can only use once, include “Smash your kid’s piggy bank: $15” and “Sell your plasma: $25.”

Tellingly, “Relive classic Horatio Alger Jr. ‘Rags to Riches’ story” was not an option.

Here are some of the decisions I had to make:
Give your ailing mother money for medicine: $100. Don’t: Free.
Take your suffering dog to the vet: $350. Euthanize him: $50. Let him suffer: Free.

It plays like the most depressing MasterCard ad ever.

Luckily, there’s no real fallout from the decisions so I don’t have to read about how my child hates me for killing her dog. That kindness is the closest the game comes to giving you a break.

Even the “good things” end up being agonizing decision points because of how close you hover around financial ruin. Your kid gets $10 in a card for her birthday. Do you pocket the money or give it to her? $10 won’t exactly break you either way, but the genius of the game is that you have to struggle with every financial decision. It’s a bleak world, and it doesn’t look like it can get better.

You can apply for food stamps, but they won’t kick in until next month, after the game ends. You can chip in $10 for the office lottery, but you won’t win. The goal of the game designers is to strip away any false impressions people might have in thinking that they’re special and would never need a handout.

The time that I “won” the game, ending it with $1455 and having enough for next month’s rent, I drove away from a hit-and-run, let a co-worker get fired for the plates I broke at the restaurant, stole $25 from my kid, skipped out on my best friend’s wedding, bought no groceries, and ignored $800 worth of dental work that left my character in constant pain. Yay?

The biggest complaint I could lob against the game is that the deck is stacked so heavily towards hardship that it becomes ridiculous, almost a Blues Brothers-like pile-up of poverty and sadness. But none of the game events are so unlikely as to make them impossible. More importantly, the feeling that it evokes in you, like any good horror game, is one of threatened survival. Even after you end the game, it takes a few minutes for your pulse to return to normal.

My pulse does slow eventually, though. Ultimately, I’m just a tourist in the world of the poor and I couldn’t take the ten minutes I spent in it. It was easy to know in the the back of your mind that there are people worse off than you. It’s different to be one of them.

The hordes of zombies feel almost safe now.

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