Let them play games! Online games as a learning tool

Because we exist in a fairly technologically advanced world, we are often faced with competing for our students’ attention. They log on to facebook, email, and other sites to avoid listening to us, their professors. Despite my frustrations with students’ lack of attention to our (the collective “we” of teachers) lectures, I have to say that I do not always blame them. I can understand how, for students, showing up to lectures represents passive learning. And most students, understandably, have no interest in passive learning. The whole reason learning is exciting is because it’s active and engaging, or at least it ought to be and can be.

One major pitfall of modern academia is that it often overlooks opportunities to allow education to be enhanced by tools available to us today. One such tool that is becoming an increasingly valuable one is role-playing games. I recently blogged about a few great online and mobile device games here as good examples of this. A major advantage of role-playing games is that they are engaging, forcing students to take on a real-world role, even if momentarily.

One such game I recently came across was Spent, an online flash (browser-based) game developed by Urban Ministries of Durham. I found out about the game through my good friend and colleague, Jordan LaBouff. Jordan is quite technologically savvy and brilliantly incorporates technology and active learning exercises into his teaching. You can view his blog post on Spent here.You can view other posts on teaching and learning from him at his blog.

Spent was designed to demonstrate the difficulties of climbing out of poverty, which is a situation that nearly 14 million unemployed Americans face today. At the beginning of the game, you start with having lost your job, your home, and you are only left with $1,000 in savings. To top it all off, you are a single parent. First, you must decide on what job to apply for. There are a variety of options, each with benefits and drawbacks. Some jobs require you to have certain skills (e.g., be able to easily lift 20 lbs, typing skills). After obtaining a job, you must choose housing. You can live closer to the city (where you work) or further away. The further away you live, the less your rent costs but the more you spend in gas. Living closer to the city decreases fuel costs, but rent is significantly higher.

As the game progresses, you are faced with difficult decisions while you are left with your meager $1,000 (but only approximately $300 after paying for your housing). Difficult decisions begin to emerge, such as: Should I pay for health insurance or just risk it? Which bills should I pay because Ican only afford to pay 1-2 bills out of the 3-4 that I have?

The further into the game you get, the more difficult these decisions become. For instance, your child is seen as a bright student and gets selected for the gifted and talented program,  but you must pay $50 for his or her books and fees. Rent is due and you can’t afford the $50. Do you tell your kid they can’t be in the program so that you can pay your rent? Alternatively, what if your family pet gets sick? You can pay $400 to get him or her fixed, $50 to put him or her to sleep, or pay nothing and watch your pet suffer. You only have $230 in the bank and pay day isn’t for another few days. What do you do?

Countless decisions like this must be made as you try your best to make it through one month on your small salary. With each decision you make, a blurb pops up informing you how decisions like the one you just made affect countless Americans in poverty. As I played the game, I had a sudden revelation:

Morals are expensive and not everyone has the luxury of paying for them.

For instance, at one point in the game, I accidentally hit someone’s car. The damage was going to cost me $500 to fix, I only had $435 in the bank, and my pay day wasn’t for four more days. So what did I do? I chose the option to drive away. I would consider myself a fairly moral person, but I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do in this scenario so I violated my own morals.

In another situation, my mother needed $100 to fill a prescription that she needed, but I denied her the money because I didn’t have it in the bank. I felt awful, putting my fictional mother at risk for severe medical problems or even death possibly. Later, I ignored my own health by going to work sick and ignoring a heart problem because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill to go see the doctor.

The game also does a great job at demonstrating how difficult it is to eat healthy when in poverty, thus perpetuating several problems among the poor such as obesity, malnutrition, etc. Spent gives you the option to buy several different things at the store but it has to last you a couple of weeks and you have to be able to afford it. Most of my friends know me as an extremely healthy person who buys very expensive foods, mostly because my groceries are produce and unprocessed foods. In the game, however, when I went to put things like apples and carrots in my basket, I couldn’t afford them. Instead, I grabbed spaghetti, bread and peanut butter, and ramen noodles. I was only able to let myself buy one healthy thing: a bag of apples.

Spent struck me as the perfect game to utilize in a course I teach in the Fall called the Examined Life. In this course, we spend a few weeks of the semester discussing what is called the “social dimension.” In this dimension, we expose students to the reality of prejudice, poverty, and other social problems. For years, we have been trying to find a way to illustrate the problem of crawling out of poverty first hand. What I like about Spent is that it does this, while also incorporating the real loss of pride, morals, dignity, and often family members (i.e., your pet) that poverty brings with it. I played it a couple of times, and I had to make countless moral and personal sacrifices. Even after making these hard decisions, the bills still caught up with me and I was ultimately trapped by poverty. Thus, this game demonstrates that poverty is a game you just cannot win.

Spent gives a realistic look into how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. Even though I tell my students this, I think this first-person role playing game does a better job of allowing students to learn by doing rather than hearing. Spent allows students to play the role of someone stuck in poverty, making hard decisions about his or her imaginary family. Even though I was only pretending to have children in the scenario I was in, I was heartbroken to tell my kids we couldn’t afford the school lunch, knowing they would be mocked and telling one of my children he or she could not be in the talented and gifted program because “Mommy can’t afford it.”

I encourage anyone out there, especially teachers, to play this game. And use it as a learning tool. You will be amazed how much more your students will remember from this game than from a lecture telling them about the difficulties of poverty. Let them see what it is like to be Spent.
*Note: Another nice thing is that an opportunity is provided at the end of the game to donate $5 to help pay for a day’s worth of food for someone living *Spent*.


About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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