Spent - Game Image

Spent: Game Review

Review by: Alex Hatzidakis


Release: February 2011

Platforms: Mobile and browser

Developers: McKinney & Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD)

Urban Ministries of Durham serves over 6,000 people every year. But you’d never need help, right?

Prove it!
Accept the challenge!

Durham, with a population of 300 060¹, sits in the Tar Heel state of North Carolina, U.S.A. Like many other cities within the ‘Land of opportunity,’ poverty and homelessness are rife and only increasing. Issues of homelessness and poverty are not unique to the fourth most populated city in the state, as it shares a troubling trend felt across the globe. So what makes this American city stand out?

Amongst others, what makes Durham, North Carolina, unique is the team behind SPENT, an interactive video game focused on the struggles of poverty and homelessness. The opening webpage (pictured above) reads, ‘It’s just stuff. Until you don’t have it.’ Minimal yet effective, as its simplicity mirrors the theme ahead.

Before beginning the interactive game, I paused and wondered what had driven me here, to a game developed and focused around a large city in the east of the U.S.
Residing in Melbourne for most of my life, over 16 000 kilometres separate the two cities but like local residents of Durham, homelessness and poverty are no strangers to Melburnians and Australians alike.

Issues shared globally, our scorching nation has not escaped the battle of the ever-growing crisis that has seen a rise in the last decade. In Melbourne alone:

‘Homelessness rates have soared over the past 10 years, with the 2016 ABS census recording 1725 people as homeless in the City of Melbourne. In the state of Victoria alone, for every person sleeping on the street, there are another 21 people experiencing homelessness².’

So, as I sat in front of my desktop, noting my home city of Melbourne is not unique, nor is Durham, Paris, London or Shanghai in the boundaries of homelessness and poverty. In history, wherever humans have congregated, settled and expanded, these issues have run deep. As if a seed, planted and spread, hidden away under beautiful cities, only for unappealing roots to protrude through concrete jungles and become a permanent part of the urban landscape.

Without further thought, I began my journey and placed a metaphorical shoe on the other foot; I accepted the challenge.

Day 1

Immediately, the sombre mood is intensified by haunting piano notes, creating an ambience that mirrors the incoming text, which places you in the scenario of 26 million Americans alike, having lost their job, home and savings.

With USD$1000 in the bank and a month’s time frame, your first task is to get a job. The good news is there are three available. The bad news is they’re either minimum wage or come with a few prerequisites with limited hours.

Cleverly, the three jobs are vastly different and mimic real-life situations. I narrowed it down to two positions—a permanent position with minimal earnings or a temp job with a higher hourly rate. Suddenly, a flashback of my 20’s overcame me, and before I knew it, I had clicked on the hospitality position, offering USD$2.17 an hour plus tips.


A screenshot of SPENT

If I had a feeling of elation, it was quickly quashed as I was met with the text above, followed by a rundown of my earnings, roughly USD$1000 a month (about AUD$1450). Next, health insurance! You learn your virtual character has a child and is already covered by the state, but, of course, you aren’t. At $76 a month, it won’t break the bank, but ‘it’s no free ride.’

Before clicking on another stress-inducing page, my eyes wandered the site, dark and minimal; I couldn’t help but wonder what certain icons were. Confused, I was certain of one area on the left of the screen; three crosses with the title ‘Job Strikes’ decorated the gloomy  monitor.

The following pages cleverly placed me in real-life situations, such as acquiring a rental property. As life is not as simple, SPENT mindfully transpires true issues met by real people. The distance to work and the costs to get there are all incorporated into your decisions. There was no other choice; I had two virtual mouths to feed.

What money?

My initial savings of $1000 was a mere $192 after just four days; it was time to get thrifty. My new abode was too small for all my belongings, opting for a yard sale rather than hiring a storage unit. I was confident I had made the right choice.

A whole day and $150 later, I wondered if it were as clever as I thought, but just when a little extra pocket money comes your way, life throws a curveball at you. This time a broken window and a $100 bill to pay.

With every hurdle I approached, I was given three options, one worse than the other and one never a standout. Nevertheless, the interactive experience continued to throw curveballs of unexpected bills and field trips for my virtual child.

Hang-ups and statistics

When it rains, it pours! An old age saying will forever be relevant, and so it is within the confines of this game. As I missed car repayments, I found myself hanging up on debt collectors, hoping they would forget.  Life was coming at me hard, and so for the millions of Americans in a similar situation. Mindfully inserted with statistics throughout the experience.

Payday seemed to be a distant date, with bills, rent, and repayments coming at me fast. Now, a day till payday, I had $8 in my account, which was ironically lowered to $3 due to bank fees because you guessed it, I had little to no money in it (below $50).

First Payday

As the game focuses on surviving a month, the right-hand side of the screen is littered with numbers, running down the screen with a dollar sign accompanying three dates: the 10th, 17th and 24th. It was the tenth of the month, and payday was here, but something told me it would not last long.

Lo and behold, I was right! It was like I had experienced this anecdotally, or something. Money came out of my account almost before I could count it. Receiving a speeding ticket, I had no other choice but to refute it but still had to pay a decreased amount of $50. Those three strikes I mentioned previously made their introduction as I missed a day of work due to spending all day in court.

What’s next?!

Morality or hunger?

SPENT cleverly places you in situations where your morality is questioned. Do I hang up the phone with the debt collector? Do I drive away from the vehicle I just hit? And if I do, how do we eat? Now, I am no saint, and in the game, my morals lie within the same compass regardless of (virtual)reality.

There are options to ask for help from friends, personally or on social media. And there is where I believe the game excels and cleverly places players within the same game, yet allows players to experience a different set of circumstances depending on players’ choice.

A fortnight to forget

They say the proud go hungry, and my choices led me to land on day 14, broke and out of the game. I could sit here and tell you I played again, but life is not like that as I allowed my experience to end on the precipice of a new fortnight.


A screenshot of SPENT

Although the developers McKinney and UMD researched and based their game on Durham and its economy, it is reminiscent of most issues found within most people’s front doorstep.

Poverty is not unique, nor is it new, but it is something no human should have to endure, regardless of socioeconomic background. SPENT is an experience most of us have lived through and highlights the struggles many people suffer just to survive. I didn’t just enjoy the game; I recommend it to anyone, regardless of stature. Simple yet effective, it will humble even the tallest of giants.