Social Game About Homelessness Headed to Congress


McKinney, a Durham, NC-based ad agency had done some pro bono work over the years for the charity organization Urban Ministries of Durham. But it was often hard to get a tangible read on whether these ad efforts were having a real impact.

“We just weren’t sure all that work we were doing was working,” said Jenny Nicholson, a copywriter at McKinney.
However, as fortune would have it, about a year or so ago, Nicholson’s father was playing a lot of FarmVille, the mega-popular Zynga-produced Facebook game. And she was receiving lots of updates on her father’s crops and harvest accomplishments. Then an idea sparked.
What about a social game centered around homelessness?
Sounds like a disaster right? Gaming mixed with social blight? But Nicholson’s thinking was to harness the power of social media and the role-playing nature of games to get people thinking more about the challenges of people on the verge of homelessness and those already living without a home.t.
So Nicholson and her team created SPENT, an online homeless-centric game McKinney has just announced that SPENT has been played one million times by people in 196 countries.
The idea behind SPENT is to help players get a sense of what it is like for millions of Americans who live on the edge of poverty. When players start out, they’ve just lost their jobs and are forced to select among several low-paying jobs, such as working as a temp or in a restaurant.
As the game progresses, players are left to make decisions on how to spend their last $1000. Virtual bills are due, and users must decide which can be paid and which can’t — and then face the consequences.
SPENT even encourages players to turn to Facebook to ask friends for money when desperate — an attempt at helping people, even in a small way, understand what sort of awkward, painful choices real people make every day. That’s a major focus of the Urban Ministries of Durham; according to Nicholson, 75 percent of the people it works with are not actually homeless, but are at risk of becoming so.
Nicholson said, “We wanted to raise awareness of that reality: the hard emotional choices people make.”
While awareness was the ultimate goal of SPENT, the game has raised about $20,000. And now McKinney is looking to raise SPENT’s profile, just in time for Labor Day — with so many Americans out of work. On Wednesday (Aug. 31) McKinney and the Urban Ministries of Durham kicked off a petition aimed at getting members of Congress to play and pass along the game.
The goal is to get all 535 members to spend 10 minutes with SPENT. “We’re really challenging Congress to think about these issues,” said Nicholson.

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