Over 14 million Americans are unemployed. Now, imagine you're one of them. Your savings are gone. You've lost your house. And you're down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month?
I recently heard on NPR about this simulation game called Spent (available to play here). It's about surviving a month with your last $1,000. The game is a collaboration between McKinney and the Urban Ministries of Durham.
I must say, the game intrigued me from the very beginning. I've always thought that I live a fairly frugal lifestyle, so living a month with $1,000 didn't sound like a big challenge. Boy, was I taken for a ride.
The presentation is dark and grim from the very beginning. It truly sets the tone that you have nothing else, and this $1,000 is your last resort. The game barely has any graphics other than a few representative icons on the menu bar, but the way Spent captures your attention is through a ticking time line. With each passing day, the thin red line moves down a 30-day calendar along with your new bank balance.
You start off by picking one of the three jobs: restaurant worker, warehouse worker, or an office temp. These all have different pay scales, but they also come with different requirements. Being a restaurant worker means you have to buy a uniform, a warehouse worker means you need a car, while being an office temp means you have to pass a typing test.
I fortunately passed the typing test, but my friend who also played the game didn't. Chances are, if you're from a lower-class background like many of those in this everyday scenario, you may not have adequate computer skills to pass the test, either.
Days go by quickly, but not without making some tough decisions. You have a fever — do you call in sick or go to work anyway? Your landlord raises rent — do you pay or do you move out? A collecting agency calls — do you answer? These are just a few questions that make surviving a non-stop stressful experience.
And then there's a twist: You also have a child to support. So how do you make these tough decisions while also caring for your kid? I won't list all the questions, but some of the choices are even more difficult to make when you're trying to decide between spending what you barely have on short-term survival or investing in your child's future.
I played several times to see how I could save the most money. There was one time I was able to save up to $500, but that was after skipping out on car registration payments and not giving my mother money for operation. And either way, I could never have enough money for next month's rent.
This game truly opened my eyes. Not in the sense that I need to stop spending money (since I've never been a big spender), but in how much life's unexpected things cost. With a child to support, the game also gave me a renewed sense of gratitude for my own parents that no other simulation has before.
I recommend everyone to give Spent a try to see how much you're able to save or how long you're able to survive at all.