In 2011, the Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD), a non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter for adults and families facing homelessness asked digital agency McKinney to create a campaign reflecting what it's like for people to stay in its shelter.
UMD asked McKinney to illustrate the journeys of people who participated in its transition programs and benefited from its services. The goal was to show that the program can help anyone in need, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or faith.
But Jenny Nicholson, executive director of brand experience at McKinney, realized it would be a challenge to get the average person to relate to the chronically homeless.
“We had worked with Urban Ministries before and had done a traditional broadcast campaign about encouraging people to be kinder to people in poverty,” she said. “It was beautiful and made people cry, but it didn't really change much, and I remember feeling really frustrated by that.”
So instead of a static broadcast campaign, she pitched creating a game that could help people empathize with the homeless population.
McKinney took inspiration from popular games at the time, such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, to develop a game called SPENT, which helps people experience the fine line between financial stability and poverty.
Hosted on a microsite, the game starts players off with $1,000 and asks them to make financial decisions that help them save in discretionary income by the end of the month (30 days).
Players who log on are met with the statement: “Urban Ministries of Durham serves over 6,000 people every year. But you'd never need help, right?” Then, they are taken through real-world scenarios where they have to navigate tough financial decisions.
Users are asked to imagine that they are one of the currently 26 million unemployed Americans that have lost their homes, spent all their savings and are down to their last $1,000.
Players then consider situations such as weighing the cost to commute to a new job when living in a cheaper apartment further away from work, factoring in health insurance premiums when choosing a job, paying for car insurance and phone bills, or figuring out what to do if a pet gets sick. Each “day” is presented with a new scenario until the player runs out of money.
Since 2011, scenarios have been updated to stay current. Most recently, the game has been tweaked to reflect current unemployment rates and inflation.
“[‘We wanted to] make an immersive experience that helps people understand all of the challenges people face and how hard they fight before they ever end up in a place like Urban Ministries of Durham,” Nicholson said.
Since the game launched in February 2011, SPENT has been played more than 16 million times by nearly 7.3 million people in 236 countries. Players spend an average of 12 minutes and 34 seconds playing the game.
To date, UMD has raised more than $207,000 for food and shelter for Durham’s homeless, enough to end homelessness for 27 people.
Over the years, SPENT has also become an educational tool used by teachers, social workers, hospitals and professional development coaches, and it continues to be played 9,000 times daily worldwide.
Today, with inflation increasing the cost-living, groceries, rent and gas, Nicholson says SPENT is more relevant than ever.
“There are people [commenting on the game] saying ‘I actually lived this,’” she said. “No month is maybe quite as bad, but it effectively captures the feeling that you can't win.”