Playspent: A Computer Game About America’s Working-Poor

by Intern Julie

Playspent is an on-line computer game designed to help players understand the compromises and choices faced by today’s working poor. Designed by the marketing company McKinney in collaboration with the North Carolina not-for-profit Urban Ministries of Durham, the game is part of a trend of socially responsible computer programs that help players understand social justice issues and global problems through information and problem solving management embedded in the game.

Playspent starts with you unemployed and having 1000 dollars to your name. You’re offered three jobs: server, temp worker, or general laborer, a description of wage and hours underneath each. I choose server and immediately have to purchase a uniform, draining my account of 20 bucks. Throughout the game, you’re faced with real life problems like choosing between fixing your car ($800) or taking the bus to work ($200).  Making $8 dollars an hour as a waitress, I managed to make it to the end of the game with $200 in my account, but only after my gas and cellphone was cut and I forgoed the additional costs of a dental care for my toothache and a tutor for my kid. In game world, it was the end of the month and that meant rent was due: a 600 dollar fee I couldn’t afford.

The problems presented by Playspent were just a game for me, but the reality of “food now or gas later?” is faced everyday by working-Americans. After being defeated by Playspent, my frustration at the game is only an echo of working-class American’s everyday financial frustrations.

The Federal Reserve has stated that 9% of Americans are unemployed, and projects that number will remain steady in the coming year. That means over 13.9 million Americans are currently out of work, and that’s when you’re not counting the underemployed, part-timers, and those who have simply given up looking for work. An even larger number of Americans are members of the working poor. According to the National Employment Law Project, 47 million employed Americans fail to earn a living wage. The real value of the minimum wage has fallen 30 percent over the last 30 years. As a server in the game, my minimum wage started at 2.13 an hour and the rest of my income was made up through the kindness of tipping strangers.

The longer one remains unemployed, the less likely they are to find a job. In order to land a job, employers require relevant skills and up-to-date references. The longer you’re out of the job, the more out of date your skills become. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received a number of reports stating that applicants have been refused employment after an interviewer discovered they were currently unemployed, and other reports of ‘Help Wanted’ signs simply read that the unemployed need not apply.

All signs point to things getitng tougher, as the Federal Government considers implementing austerity plans that would cut social spending. Social spending such as medi-aid, foodstamps, and unions that guarantee job stability, wage increases and benefits are an important part of how most the country gets by. Playspent reminds the player that this game of low-wage and tough choices is reality for many, if not most, Americans. As the screen closes, it asks you to donate to the Urban Ministries of Durham, an organization that collects and distributes clothing and food to those in need in North Carolina, provides shelter for the homeless, and a live-in drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for homeless men and women.  Please do.

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