Posts tagged game mechanics
This morning Mashable did an article on a very interesting project carried out by McKinney and the Urban Ministries of Durham (NC). The project is a particularly thoughtful use of game mechanics and social media to help educate people about the homelessness problem in the United States through a game called “SPENT.” The game is a simple point and click Flash game that basically puts you in a scenario where you’re unemployed, down to your last $1000 and need a job fast.
As a disclaimer, before I go on, let me say that I think this is a really great project in spirit and execution and McKinney definitely has their hearts in the right place. It’s informative, it’s easy to play and very ballsy because this subject is a touchy one to say the least. I’ve already commented on the article over at Mashable and there is quite a good conversation starting up there simply by virtue of the implications of the project. So in short, though I may criticize certain aspects of the game in the next paragraph or so, I would like to make it clear to Nick Jones and Jenny Nicholson over at McKinney that I have a lot of respect for this project in what its trying to accomplish.
It’s fairly well known that I have some experience working with public sector or not-for-profit clients in my capacity as a digital strategist and wannabe PR guy (i.e. BC Ministry of Liquor and Gaming, Chelsea’s Light, Movember/Prostate Cancer, The United Way, and some of the charities listed at the WIND Best Conversation Ever site, etc.) and different NFPs have taken varying approaches to spreading their message, but all share the same desire to convey the sense of urgency for their respective causes to ultimately raise funds and/or garner support. The constant challenge is deciding how to convince would-be donors to be empathetic to the issue or understand the cause in a way that exhorts them to make a donation/sign a petition/protest a bill etc. We’re still technically in a recession and money is tight so getting people to donate to a cause and then spread the word requires some really creative thinking and community building that goes beyond just Facebook. This past Movember was a huge success raising almost $30 Million in Canada alone in the span of about a month. We did it by framing the fight against Prostate Cancer as an idea in good currency and getting people in on the fun in the digital space, on the pavement and in the venues – without taking donors on an all-expense paid trip to guilt-land. I think just about everyone understands that whatever issue a cause is trying to create awareness for is serious and worthy but in many cases there’s no need to beat patrons over the head with it. As a former data analyst for the BC government, I’m not an advocate of using stats as scare tactics. They are good for validation of a cause’s sense of urgency (even Movember quoted prevalence stats) but they should not be dogmatic, alienating, or patronizing.
I’ve now played “SPENT” about 8 times and have been presented with a number of slightly different circumstances where I had to make tough decisions in what is described as a “simulation” of what it’s like to become homeless. Even though the campaign is clever in its use of game mechanics to educate people about the shortcomings of America’s economic system I’ve noticed that the game’s tone had a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” caveat to every decision. In short, almost every situation presented is a curve ball. You have absolutely no luck and everything sucks, making the game very linear. Any “luck” is always dampened with a financial woe or more bad luck. For example you qualify for food stamps…but don’t get them till the next month or win a small claims court case for $100 but pay $75 in legal fees and lose a day of work at your hourly paid job. The game paints such a hopeless picture that I wonder if donating money will even make a difference.
The other criticism of the simulation aspect of the game is that you don’t get a complete bird’s eye view of the situation before you start to manage your $1000 over the coming 30 days. For example the game fails to inform you at the start that you have a kid, presumably no family to help you (although you can ask your friends on Facebook for loans or help with some tasks), a sick pet that needs expensive medical care and will incur a $350 pet fee from your mean landlord, and invariably an evil slave-driver of a boss who scoffs at worker’s comp or any benefit. Furthermore, according to the game, minimum wage for a server in the US is $2.13 when in actuality the mean hourly wage for servers in the US is $9.80). On a positive note, the game assumes you are drug free and have a college degree but despite all that the only lifelines available are smashing your kid’s piggy bank (+$15), giving blood (+$25) or getting a payday loan (+$50 – with the icon representation being a clever shark’s fin).
The views I shared above about the game are based on what’s put in front of the user. My subjective opinion however is that I can’t help but feel that this less of a simulation of what it’s really like to spiral into homelessness and more of an exploration of what is pretty close to the absolute worst case scenario. I get that the point trying to be conveyed about homelessness is that those at risk of homelessness are caught between a rock and a hard place but I still think that the case presented is at the extreme end of the possible causes of homelessness (drug dependency notwithstanding) and as a result seems rather unlikely with regards to authenticity. How that affects the donation drive remains to be seen.
However all that said and despite the overall negative tone of the game, I think the it’s still a success in terms of getting the message across and for that I applaud McKinney.