The way I see it, video games can be a very good medium to tell stories. Since players are participating actively in driving the narrative forward. The online game Spent attempts to make use of this in a different manner, by placing us in the struggles of a person with low income in the US.
Spent (from 2011) was created as a way of creating awareness about the hardships of living in the US with a low income, which can result in homelessness. The ideas and aspirations of the game are great, but there are also some problems with the way in which things are portrayed in the game.
The game is simply text based, and structured around multiple choice. First you must chose your job, then where you wish to attempt to live – and so on. I say attempt, because the whole point of this game is to show the player how difficult it can be to secure and keep a place to live in when only making a minimum wage. And the game does highlight some striking problems, such as how expensive health case is – it barely affordable.
Every time you then make a choice, the game will through a piece of trivia after you. an example is given in the image below. These pieces of information mainly serve a function of underlining the reality of the choices we make, especially the fact that the choice we make in this game are choices with real life consequences for many Americans.
The problem is that this game is always about choices – it always offers various actions – ways of making ends meet, so to speak. By doing so, it does to some extent give the player the impression that even though life might be tough it isn’t impossible. Psychology Today carried out a study on the game and how it affected participants of the study and stated,“In fact, the game had a negative effect on attitudes among certain participants – including some people who were sympathetic to the poor to begin with”. This impressions that it is possible to change one’s life situation simply by changing a few of the choices we make could actually be the game mechanic that removes empathy.
The point here is that video games have huge potential when it comes to creating empathy through narrative. However, we mustn’t forget that we are still dealing with games, and therefore game mechanics – and these can greatly impact how we react to a games content. The mechanics are the way we engage with the game and illicit control – and in a game where the point should be that control is actually limited it seems strange to give the player as much control on the outcome as we have.
Try the game for yourself, and see what you think – it is an interesting experience.