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SPENT is an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness created by ad agency McKinney for pro bono client Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD), whose mission "is to provide food, clothing, shelter and supportive services to neighbors in need".[1] Players must make the difficult decisions necessary to live for one month on $1,000, often having to choose between equally disagreeable options. The dilemmas they face represent those that bring people to places like UMD: Do you make a healthy meal or keep the lights on? Cover the minimum on your credit cards or pay the rent? Hope your sick daughter gets better on her own or risk your job by leaving early to take her to the doctor? Let your son play in the after-school sports league or save the money needed for his uniform?

The game ends when players either run out of money before the end of the month or make it through with money left over.

Since its launch in February 2011, the interactive game SPENT has been played more than 4 million times in over 218 countries.[2]


Those interested in playing SPENT must go to http://playspent.org/ and click "Accept the Challenge" on the home page. Players are given $1,000 to live on for one month. The goal is to end the month with some money left over. Throughout the game’s one-month period, players learn how quickly changes in employment, housing, medical costs and other expenses can have disastrous consequences.

Because it’s hard to make it on your own, players can ask their Facebook friends for help by posting messages like, “I can’t pay all my bills this month. Can I borrow some money?” and “My kid and I got evicted. Can we crash at your place?” This connection to social media also serves as organic advertising for the website and makes the experience seem more personal, less like a game.

Whether SPENT players make it to the end of the month with change in their pockets or whether they run out of money before the month is up, all players are invited to “help someone living SPENT today” by learning more about UMD’s mission and by donating to the not-for-profit organization.


McKinney’s 11-member team[3] noted that tens of millions of people each month play games like FarmVille[4] and Mafia Wars,[5] harvesting virtual crops and assembling a virtual crime family. They suspected that the characteristics of these fun social network games could engage people in a powerful learning experience about the reality of poverty and homelessness lived daily by those helped by UMD.

The team created a brand-integrated online game that makes it personal and visceral just how thin the line is that separates even the most successful of us from the devastation of homelessness. The team conducted focus groups with UMD caseworkers and the families and residents assisted by them in order to glean the details necessary to construct real-life situations for SPENT players to negotiate.

For example, if a player chooses to opt out of the health insurance plan offered by his or her employer for a couple hundred dollars a month, the player sees this message before the game continues: “Even when health insurance is offered, the premiums are often so high that many low-income workers opt out — just like you did. Let’s hope you don’t get sick!”

Using statistics from Durham’s fair market rent values, the McKinney team determined realistic housing costs to offer players. After deciding whether to live closer to work (where the rent is high but the transportation costs low) or to live farther from work (where the rent is less expensive but the transportation costs much higher), players are shown this message: “A lack of affordable housing is the number one cause of homelessness. The definition of ‘affordable’ housing is 30 percent of income, but you and over 12 million other American households spend way more on housing.”

If players find the game too difficult, they can click “I can’t do this” on the upper left corner of the screen to quit. “This is too hard isn’t it?” the game then asks before prompting players to donate $5 “to provide a day’s meals for someone living SPENT” and providing a link to UMD.

Release and acclaim[edit]

In just over 10 months, the game raised $45,000 from 25,000 new UMD donors,[6] and it was praised on CNN,[7] ABC[8] and Fast Company[9] for its ability to increase awareness of poverty in an immersive social media setting.

In September 2011, McKinney and UMD launched a petition to the U.S. Congress[10] to take 10 minutes to experience the challenges that more than 14 million Americans are facing on a daily basis by playing SPENT.

As of December 2013, the game continued get about 5,000 new plays each day. To allow for play on mobile devices, an HTML version was released in July 2014, when almost 2 million people had spent an average 11:46 on the site.[11]


  1. ^ "Mission, Values, History". Urban Ministries of Durham. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  2. ^ "McKinney launches mobile version of SPENT" (PDF). http://umdurham.org/. Urban Ministries of Durham. Retrieved 31 July 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  3. ^ Flandez, Raymund (February 14, 2011). "Online Game Draws Attention—and Money—for the Needy". Prospecting. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  4. ^ Schreier, Jason (February 15, 2011). "5 Top Social Games and Why They’re So Successful". Social Gaming Development Series. Mashable. Retrieved January 10, 2012. 
  5. ^ Mack, Christopher (April 7, 2009). "Mafia Wars Comes to the iPhone". Inside Social Games. Inside Network. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  6. ^ Hampton, Angela (2012). Urban Ministries of Durham (video) (Television production). ABC 11 Eyewitness News. Event occurs at 10:48. Retrieved January 11, 2012. We have had donations from about 5,000 new donors totalling about $25,000 year to date. 
  7. ^ TED Ads Worth Spreading (2012). Spent (video). Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  8. ^ The Conversation: Homeless Simulation Game (video) (Television production). ABC News. February 16, 2011. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  9. ^ Coren, Michael J. (October 5, 2011). "Live Life Below the Poverty Line by Playing Spent". Co.Exist. Fast Company. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Challenge Your Congresspeople to Play SPENT". Petition2Congress. August 29, 2011. Retrieved January 11, 2012. 
  11. ^ "McKinney launches mobile version of SPENT". mckinney.com. McKinney. Retrieved 31 July 2014. 

External links[edit]