Forced Failure in SPENT

In this article, game designer Sande Chen examines the role of agency in the social impact game, SPENT.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Agency and Social Impact Games.]

Last year, an article in Psychology Today made the rounds, declaring that social impact games may have a less than desired effect.  Based on her study of adult players of SPENT, a text-based poverty simulator made by ad agency McKinney with input from the Urban Ministries of Durham, Yale researcher Gina Roussos found that some participants ended up with increased negative feelings towards poor people instead of empathetic concern.

On the surface, this would seem to contradict an earlier study on SPENT that did show that SPENT increased affective learning in students.  Affective learning involves feelings, motivations, attitudes, and values.  However, that study was not about measuring negative or positive attitudes, but rather about active engagement.  The game encouraged these students to think about issues, which in turn had the possibility to engender attitude adjustment or a change in behavior.

Roussos attributed her surprising results to the agency, or choices allowed, in video games.  Because players have agency, she reasoned that players might feel that poor people have control over their life situations, even if in reality, they don't.  However, while she may feel that there's agency in SPENT, I found that there's examples of forced failure all over SPENT.  For example, just because I talked to a union rep in the game, I was illegally fired from my warehouse job. Forced failure is extremely tricky in game design, especially since the end result is that it usually pisses off your players.
Moreover, I did not feel that SPENT was entirely accurate.  Most states would have Medicaid for the indigent, so why would I have to pay for health insurance?  If I went to college, why are my job options so limited?  If I just abandoned my car, why would I need to pay for car insurance?  I spent more time pissed off at the game than caring about poor people.  Factoids pop up frequently, making SPENT an extremely preachy game.  I did "win" in that I ended up with $72 at the end of the month, but the game then reminds me that my $808 rent is due tomorrow.  Um, forced failure?
One resentful user wrote:
"Why do I have a student loan? Was I unaware of the Pell Grant? Was I not good enough for scholarships? Did I refuse to live with my parents until graduation? 
Where did this child come from? I’m not married, and I don’t seem to be getting child support. I can’t fathom why I apparently have this kid. 
Why do I HAVE to have a car? Why is my cell phone so expensive? Why is my landlord above the law? Why am I not just living in Section 8 housing? 
This game is absolutely ridiculous, and all it showed me was that the average person is trying to live beyond their actual means."

Rather than too much personal agency, SPENT doesn't have enough agency. It doesn't have enough choices.  It doesn't have enough depth.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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