Serious topics as games – good or bad idea?


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When I was reading this morning and saw an article about a homelessness game, I was a bit disturbed. A game? About something as serious as homelessness? That can’t be.

The game is called SPENT and was created for the Urban Ministries of Durham, a non-profit in North Carolina. Basically, the game shows how difficult it is for a homeless person to make important decisions that come with some hefty consequences.

Mashable claims that the connection to Facebook is the game’s best feature, and that’s where it initially lost me. Turning a serious topic into a social game didn’t seem like a good idea to me. Regardless, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and decided to see what the game was all about.

You lost your job, no longer have a home and need to survive on only $1,000 for a month. First, you need to choose a job to apply for and then make decisions about your finances. You get in a fender bender that’s going to cost you over $500 – do you drive away?

I ran out of money on Day 16, and had to make some pretty rough decisions to even make it that far. In case you were wondering, I chose to drive away after the fender bender, and even though this was just a game, it made me feel fairly uncomfortable.

The Facebook connection gives you the opportunity to ask your friends to help you out with a little cash or by taking a pet you weren’t supposed to have in your apartment. Again, I caught myself thinking, “Well, I can’t ask my friends for that!” even though this was just a game.

I still can’t decide how I feel about this serious topic becoming a social challenge. Thoughts?

February 8, 2011 · Posted by in misc, web  


7 Responses to “Serious topics as games – good or bad idea?”

  1. Johnny Marsz on February 8th, 2011 12:24 pm

    I think too many people have the idea in their heads that its not hard to turn your life into lemonade when life gives economic lemons. If this game gives a perspective that might generate empathy for the poor, then maybe it could help fix some less-then-humble attitudes.

  2. Pete Prodoehl on February 8th, 2011 12:35 pm

    Gamification is the new thing… sort of. Making things into games, or adding “game playing” activities to applications and web sites is one more way to engage people at a deeper level. An old trick used by parents and teachers is to make things into a “game” to help kids accomplish tasks and to learn thing, so this really isn’t any different.

    Plenty of people get obsessive about their Foursquare badges, mayorships, and the leaderboard. Foursquare could probably exist without these features, as it still has the social aspect of knowing where your friends are, but for some, I think the playing aspect gets them hooked on it.

  3. Olivia Johnson on February 8th, 2011 12:41 pm

    Johnny – Thanks for the comment, and I think you’re right about the empathy aspect. I definitely ended my gameplay thinking about how fortunate I am that I don’t have to make such tough decisions.

    Pete – I suppose the goal of making me more engaged was absolutely succeeded here. Instead of passing it by, I’ve been thinking about it for hours.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Z2 Marketing and Olivia Johnson, Olivia Johnson. Olivia Johnson said: Alright everyone. I want to know what you think about a serious topic like homelessness becoming a social game. #opinion [...]

  5. Andrea Nordgren on February 8th, 2011 12:58 pm

    I guess I view this as an experience rather than a game. I thought it was incredibly respectful, educational and impactful. I think people react a certain way to the word “game.” Thanks for sharing – I have shared it too.

  6. Jenny on February 8th, 2011 1:00 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on SPENT.

    We thought a lot about it before we decided to make the website. After doing more traditional work for Urban Ministries, I realized that we could talk all we want about the issue, but until they experienced it for themselves, people wouldn’t really get it. And there are so many assumptions we make about why people get into financial trouble that really don’t take the context of those troubles into consideration.

    I’m glad the game got you thinking — that was our goal!

  7. Olivia Johnson on February 8th, 2011 1:08 pm

    Andrea – I think you’re right about viewing it as an experience rather than a game. There’s an important distinction there. And I’m very glad how you commented on how respectful it was – the topic was still taken very seriously.

    Jenny – So glad you could comment! You also mention that it’s more about gaining an experience than playing a game, and you’re right – people are not really going to understand until they see for themselves and go beyond initial assumptions about financial troubles. Thanks for the insight!