I play games to escape my dreary life, not to immerse myself into another loser’s existence. However, when the phrase “14 million Americans are unemployed – now you’re one of them” appears on my screen, I almost choke on my fois gras. After all, It’s fun to play as poor people I think as I dismiss my manservant for the evening. Time to get real and play some Spent.
Spent (http://playspent.org/) is a browser-based game that simulates a month in the life of a “low-income” American worker; this phrase is said constantly throughout the game, through gritted teeth and in place of the word “criminal”. The aim is to get to the end of the month with some cash in the back bin. Simple – I used to be a student, so this should be easier than pissing into a bucket.
I am aware that there will be an educational twist from playing this “Dull Life Simulator” (or DLS, just in case I need to refer to this genre again for any reason), and so you can imagine my lack of surprise when I’m told to get a job. I can’t argue with that – again, this is where my hard-work and drinking at university should come in useful. Unfortunately, this particular DLS (yay!) encourages positive action but doesn’t do very well in setting high targets; I can be a waiter, a warehouse worker, or an office temp. What about all my qualifications? My previous experience? My Good Boy Points from licking corporate ass? It doesn’t count. Spent gives you the real deal about the world, which is this: all your qualifications and experience means nothing when you’re unemployed. You’ll like what’s available or stay in the dirt, gloats Uncle Sam.
Based on the variable hours and wages of each job, I choose office temp. I’m required to do a typing test – not a problem, I can type at about 80 words a minute…which isn’t fast enough for Office Chimp Inc. and I am rejected for the role. A great twist and a small sense of hopelessness at being turned down for a job. Feel that emotional response. With slumped shoulders, I apply to be a warehouse worker instead. Now since this is an American-centric (God I love that suffix) game, health insurance isn’t that important an issue to me thanks to the British NH ‘ess. Not so in the USA, and as a manual labourer, I’m offered/sucker-punched into some insurance. As expected, the subtle educational engine behind Spent appears at certain times; in this instance, it reveals itself as a gigantic infobutton, informing me that most “slow-income” workers can’t afford health insurance. At $275 a month, I’m not surprised! Still, with my first week’s wages showing in my biscuit tin, I can afford it. I’m then given a slider to choose how far out of the city centre I wish to live, which affects the amount of fuel and rent I need to pay – between the two, I will pay either $760 or $855. I decide that moving out into the sticks will seriously affect how much pussy I can get back to my abode and how far I have to walk back from the pub when “merry”, so choose to live in the centre.
The game continues in this fashion for 30 or so turns, dishing out choices to make, with information about being poor in the richest and most affluent country in the world. My favourite is whether to spend $10 and send my son (yes, suddenly I’m given a child – I immediately name him Obediah and Photoshop a birth certificate for him) to his friend’s birthday party with a gift, or send him empty-handed, or ground him for being poor. I also have to decide whether to treat my toothache, whether to pay off my car loan and what groceries to buy. There are a few massively transparent choices to make, to the point where I could already see the infobutton prepping itself in the background, ready to inform me about “criminal drug dealing low-income” workers. One question asks “you see someone drop $10. Do you give it back or keep it?” Of course – all “low-intelligence income” workers have no morals, so the game virtually craps itself when I click the moral high-ground option instead. Some events are based around pride too. Do I accept the hand-me-down coat? Do I pay for school dinners just so Obediah doesn’t get bullied for receiving free dinners? In stereotypical “cocaine-income” fashion, I even have the option to rob Obe’s piggy bank.
As an aside, I hovered the mouse over the “Smash Piggy” option to see how much I would get from robbing my son, then realised that this alone is comparable to standing over your kid’s piggy bank in the dark, hammer in hand, wondering whether $15 is worth the fuss. It isn’t, but God help piggy if he ever accumulates $30 or more. That’s an 8 pack and a Hustler – not to be dismissed lightly. Following my brief struggle with pre-meditated porcicide, I spend the next two weeks ignoring Obediah, suing my landlord and scoffing unhealthy burgers instead of M&S salads.
At the end of it all, I survive with $40 in my wallet, an $800 dental bill and a $500 outstanding car payment. I “win”, but it feels like I’ve experienced what it’s like to lose, and as a result, I see how flawed America is. For example, American banks will charge customers if their account has less than a minimum amount in it. You heard me – if you have less than $500 in your American bank account (watered down to $50 in this game), you’ll be charged – even though you’re still in the black.
The game itself is a serious version of The Sims and delivers a powerful message – think “Trading Places”, but for only 15 minutes. Personally, I’d recommend playing this just so you realise how bloody unfair the flag-waving US of A actually is.