I came across PlaySpent.org yesterday morning and it has stayed with me. You start with $1,000 and no job. How long can you last before running out of money?

This game brought back a lot of painful memories I have from growing up, in particular: moving around a lot (homes and shelters), going to the food pantry/soup kitchen, and asking family and friends for support.  While it doesnt capture all of the nuances of making life work when going without–I wish it explored more how we use libraries, how we work with charities, how we rely on others– it drives home the point of how a series of unforseen obstacles can hurt us.

While reflecting on my experiences and the messages of the game, I walked away with the following realizations:

1. Day to day decisions that can make or break our livelihoods: If there is one thing that stands out in this game is how the decisions we make about food, transportation, housing, location, and even the jobs we take have long lasting consequences. Should you live close to work? Your housing will be more expensive, but you wont need as much gas to get to work. Should you buy fresh fruit? It’s better for you but costs more than refined carbs like white bread and pasta. Should you get health insurance? It will keep you covered from injury (which you are likely to suffer because of your job) but it will eat more than 25% of your income.

2. The strength of our support networks: While playing I had to ask for help frequently to make sure I had enough to cover my bills. But then something occurred to me: aren’t my peers likely to be struggling too? Plus the added stigma of asking for money, the unlikeliness of being able to pay that money back or give when asked, and the fear of dependency makes it hard to reach out.  It made think about the role of relationships in helping us move forward.

3. The role of charity: One thing that didn’t happen during this game was the option to ask for help from outside sources. While there is a mentality that asking for help is a sign of weakness, I wondered what role nonprofits fill and how people in need of help interact with these services on a regular bases. Are they turned away from shleters? Are they being offered help to apply for food stamps? Are they being guided in fighting an eviction? At the end of the game there are ways to get involved–should we have an option for nonprofits to begin harnessing their power to demand more support for the people they serve?

4. The need for a change in our national narrative when it comes to the working poor: The game starts with “Think you won’t need help?” and we are faced with many decisions that have a greater impact than we would expect. It’s not a matter of simply making bad choices; it’s also about realizing the measly choices we have in the first place.

So what do we need? We need to stop thinking that support services are only for *those kind of people* and that we are immune from needing help. We also need to connect our day to day work for social change with larger structural problems. Why is our work needed? What can we do to foster self sufficiency while challenging injustice?

We often waiver between demanding people “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” or pumping more money into programs. However this is a false dichotomy.  It ignores how the two approaches play off of each other and again fosters “us vs them” thinking.  It also ignores the role of relationships in access to resources and support.

Have you played the game?  What did you think?