Devastating Poverty: The Game

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June 14, 2012; Source: Mashable

The nonprofit group 58: is a Christian-based group dedicated to “end[ing] extreme poverty in our lifetime.” The group’s name is derived from the Biblical passage of Isaiah 58: “to loose the chains of injustice…to set the oppressed free…to share your food with the hungry…to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…when you see the naked, to clothe them.” The group’s latest endeavor, Mashable reports, is an online game, Survive125, in which users must make decisions as to how they will live on only $1.25 per day (an income rate that, the game tells users, is known to 26 percent of the world’s people). Users take on the character of Divya Patel, a fictional 26-year-old woman in India whose decisions include whether to pay for a school uniform or remove her son from school and whether to allow her daughter to work at a facility that is said to be connected to sex trafficking. You can try the game out for yourself here.

Survive125 is not the first game of this kind. For instance, Urban Ministries of Durham, N.C. created a somewhat similar game, SPENT, which challenges users to survive after losing a job in the U.S. The goal of these types of online games is clearly to raise awareness among the more fortunate about the conditions that many others must endure, and we don’t doubt that the makers of such games have nothing but the best intentions. Nonetheless, we suspect that something about turning the conditions and harsh choices of extreme poverty into a “game” may strike the wrong note with some people. What do you think? Are such games useful awareness builders or do they cheapen what should be a serious discussion on poverty? –Mike Keefe-Feldman

  • Stephen Maack

    Many middle and upper class people in the United States have no idea about what the lives of people who live in poverty are like and many stereotypes, often negative ones. Many do not readily go into poor neighborhoods. My church has spun off twi non-profits (People Assisting the Homeless, ChildShare), provided assistance to forming what is now Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles and has long been the largest non-governmental supporter of he Westisde Food Bank. Many people in the church have good hearts and open their hearts, homes, and a smaller number volunteers to help those in poverty, and this has been going on since before I joined the church in the mid-1980s. However, when the Los Angeles riots (rebellion) happened in 1992 we had a big meeting to determine our congregation’s reaction and a question was asked of the people in the room (well over 100?) about how many people had ever even been in South Central Los Angeles, the low-income area where the poverty and the rebellion/riots were worst. Only two or three people raised their hands.

    Games, especially well-constructed ones, can draw people into the daily lives and tough decisions that people in poverty must make every day. They are a proven method for training in a variety of fields and are being increasingly used in education at all levels. People have learned by “playing games” long before computers came into existence. So I think that if computer games are realistic and well-designed to move people past stereotypes about poverty then games are a way to inform people, especially younger people used to computer gaming, about poverty and its real-life impacts. I went to Chicago skid row missions while in high school, have been in South Central Los Angeles and used to work for the Chicago Housing Authority (public housing), and lived for a year and a half in a squatter settlement in Senegal, so have seen poverty and its impacts up close and personal in the U.S. and abroad, but I would still probably benefit from playing some of these games.

  • Sharon Boller

    As part of a team currently creating a game called A Paycheck Away, I do not feel games for change trivalize an issue or cheapen it, I think they do the opposite. Games enable people to experience the emotions and reactions connected to something they otherwise have no context for. Games offer a great springboard for discussion of serious issues and they help participants realize that solutions aren’t as simple as, “If they would just get a job,” or “If they hadn’t dropped out of school.”

    The saying, “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” before offering judgments is a old one. Games help us walk in someone else’s shoes. Armed with that understanding, we’re more capable of discussing the issues and finding solutions. See Jane McGonigal’s Ted Talk on Reality is Broken for more insights into how games can help change society