Sophie’s Choice: The Game

Sophie’s Choice: The Game


In recent years, churches, non-profits and humanitarian organizations have been using gamification to foster empathy and awareness of domestic and global poverty.

I try dozens of gamified apps per week, and none has ever brought me to tears until last month, when I played a game called SPENT, a choose-your-own-adventure style game that highlights the everyday dilemmas faced by Americans living below the poverty line.

I’m not the only one massively impressed and moved by this game. In the 8 months since we first profiled the game in 2011, SPENT has gone on to win awards, including “Most Significant Impact” at the 2012 Games For Change Festival in NYC.


Among the many things the McKinney/Urban Ministries of Dunham collaboration does well in terms of gamification is utilize social media to have the players “put their money where their mouth is”. The game puts you in a bind similar to what a person in poverty would face, with some unique twists that extend beyond the virtual world. For example, if you choose the option to ask a friend for help, it forces you to ask your actual friends on Facebook for help. I had to actually consider if any of my friends would help me were I in dire straits. Naturally, this type of game appeals to the socializer type of game player, which fortunately represents up to 75% of all gamers.

Flattering SPENT in the sincerest way possible is survive125 a game that focuses on international poverty created by live58, an alliance of 58 Christian poverty-fighting organizations.  While playing both SPENT and survive125, users in the role of parents are asked to choose how to spend limited resources in order to clothe their child and give them an education. Yet only in survive125 are parents asked to choose whether to risk their daughter being sold into human trafficking in order to save their family from financial catastrophe. It is these kinds of heartbreaking choices that engenders empathy for those whose cultures and economic systems seem impossibly foreign.


Each game presents statistics that correspond with their respective challenges. If you choose to send your daughter to an employer rumored to be engaging in trafficking, an orange bubble appears stating that most of the world’s 2.4 million victims of sex trafficking often thought they were obtaining legitimate employment before they became embroiled in a nightmare network of terror.  Players walk away from these games a little more educated about poverty than when they began, and also a little more sympathetic to those who face a harsh existence.

An off-line means of gamifying poverty awareness is being used by the Global Poverty Project in their game Live Below The Line, which challenges contestants to live on $1.50 a day, the U.S. equivalent of extreme poverty, for five days in May. What this organization does well is enlist players to form teams as part of their fundraising efforts to combat global poverty utilizing a leaderboard. This encourages teams to compete against each other to maximize donations. Participants and sponsorship partners have raised a total of $117,872 so far in 2012.

The question of whether these games will have the intended effect of ending poverty both in the U.S. and abroad remains to be answered, as neither game attracts a high monthly level of web traffic, but there is no question that these types of games are having an impact in spreading awareness about poverty. Games like SPENT and survive125 get people to engage with the question “what if this were me?” in a way that a human interest article or documentary cannot.


Now if only we could get our leaders in Congress to play these games!


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