Saturday, December 22, 2012

Inequality: The Game

Over 14 million Americans are unemployed. Now your one of them. Your savings are gone. You've lost your house. You're a single parent and your down to your last $1,000. Can you make it through the month? “ - Introduction to

     The McKinney ad agency has taken a unique approach to discuss and try to solve inequality by delivering the Urban Ministries of Durham's mission statement and donation system through a chose-your-adventure-style game based on market data called SPENT. This web-browser based game has the user attempt to survive homelessness and poverty through a series of dialogue trees and mini games in an attempt to both educate the user on poverty in the U.S. and too offer a way to donate to charities involved with poverty relief. This essay aims to analyze the success of SPENT by considering the level of poverty in the United States through market data, examine solutions to inequality, and then compare this to SPENT itself and it's use of converging media.
     From mainstream to the blogosphere economic stratification in the world is a growing problem as inequality hits it's “highest point in 20 years” (Lennard). The scales of economy have been tipped so far in the favor of a few percent of the population that relatively rich nations, such as the United States, struggle to feed their own citizens. Forty nine million Americans, 14.5 percent of U.S. Households, are not able to provide full meals for themselves (Bread for the World) and food share programs continue to reduce coverage by thousands of people each month (We Are Wisconsin). The problem of poverty is global, with austerity cuts over-saturating news worldwide despite economists urging governments that such cuts hurt economic recovery (Tores).
     There are both short and long term solutions to this inequality: short term is the supply of food, shelter and assistance while a long term fix is changing the balance of economy. SPENT offers users a chance to participate in both of these solution. Short term solutions are offered by direct $5 donations to the Urban Ministries of Dunham which will “feed one person a day” (Urban Ministries of Dunham). This option to donate, via Paypal, is offered in two ways on the site: the “end” screen or by clicking “exit” when entering the site. If the user clicks “exit” they are greeted to a screen that reads “THIS IS TOO HARD ISN'T IT?” with links to donate. Alternatively this screen is shown when the user reaches the “end” screen. This creates a commentary that seems to suggest that giving is effective, but not as effective as getting involved. It also shows that the creator is from a leftist side of ideology, promoting welfare and common good.
     Long term solutions are offered by directing the user to get involved with their communities directly. There is a universal reasoning that when someone can actively participate in their local economy and set standards for others it creates a precedent for a generation. Consider the end of segregation in the south; President Dwight Eisenhower, famous for enforcing desegregation in 1957 by deploying federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, did not enforce the Brown vs. Board of Education law until public opinion changed from the action of civil rights activists such as the Little Rock Nine. SPENT seeks to offer it's long term solution by calling for action for common sense good the same way many revolutionaries have not so long ago (Lang). Of course none of this would matter much if SPENT did not function well as a game because it wouldn't be able to reach such a large audience.
     After the user starts the game they are made to choose from three different jobs. Each job offers variation on the games cyberdrama, the “enactment of the story in the particular fiction space of the computer” (Murray). If the user selects to work as a “temp” they will be taken to a typing test (where, in a clever fashion, the user is tested by typing out the mission statement for Urban Ministries of Dunham). If they pick warehouse worker there is no test but a bigger risk for health problems. Finally the user can pick Waiter/Waitress which comes with random pay and health problems. The game plays out with days passing by on a calendar starting from the first to the 30th. The user has three strikes for employment with things like “talking to a union boss” causing the user to get fired from their job, costing a strike. The game offers explanations for this with each choice backed up by real data. For example, one day the user could be charged $150 for a broken window which their landlord must pay. If the user selects “get legal advice” instead of “pay $150” they go to a free legal clinic, lose a day of work and find out that they need to wait for a consultation for three months. The best option turns out to be “put plastic over window $5.” If the user opts to ask a friend to store their items rather than pay the $45 rental fee the game will make a Facebook posts asking if some friends will help move their furniture. This intertextual reference, to Facebook, Twitter, the charity and those in poverty, has a large breadth that is not easily noticeable when the site is first loaded. This helps make it's message a success as the text is concise.
SPENT is a contemporary platform based on economic convergence, the “horizontal integration of the entertainment industry” (Jenkins 1). While it delivers a consistent message and aesthetic the game itself is a pro bono project from ad agency McKinney who has worked with companies like Audi. Normally a high profile ad agency would never take on a project that is tailored for an interactive game of cult (Marshall) but media convergence has made this happen. There are also aspects of intellectuality, texts that “implies or calls forth other texts (Marshall, p70). SPENT feels genuine because it's based on real market data and the presentation is minimalistic.
     SPENT works on many levels because it's a fully functional game, it's topical, converging and offers short and long-term solutions to the problem of poverty. It also addresses old media in an interesting way; by clicking on the tab “get involved” the user is taken to the Urban Ministries website which looks surprisingly antiquated. Despite the poor design of the Ministries actual site the web game by McKinney has been a success as shown with over 1.7 million users logging in to play (Roth). Those users are given conflicts such as hire a math tutor for their child or actually do a math problem. If you fail the problem SPENT informs you that “over 50% of households cannot help their children with their math and science.” brings conflict up through dialogue that is hard to discount. The data is readily available and the game also shows the user facts that back up its ideology that poor people are suffering at a level of inequality we have not seen in years. It doesn't offer change in the game itself having little participation in the environment but it asks the user to be a participator in their own environment. Much different than ARG (Alternate Reality Games) which place a UI over life to make it feel like a game, SPENT creates a mental conflict based on real life to turn it into a game. If more charities can create media that turns learning about inequality as close to home, interesting and informative as SPENT, they would have more success.

Works cited

"U.S. Hunger." Bread for the World. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

"The Truth About Wisconsin Foodshare." We Are Wisconsin. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Tores, Raymond. "Unemployment in the age of austerity." Al Jazeera. N.p., 01 2012. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Lennard, Natasha. "Global inequality highest in 20 years."Salon. N.p., 01 2012. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Lang, Charmaine. "Solutions." D2L, Africology. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

"Urban Ministries of Durham About Page." Urban Ministries of Durham. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>

"SPENT." SPENT. McKinney Ad Agency. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Roth, Zachary. "Spent, an online game, forces players to confront the challenges of poverty.." Yahoo! News. N.p., 07 2011. Web. 21 Dec 2012. <>.

Jenkins, Henry. "Convergence? I Diverge.." Digital Renaissance. 2001: 1. Web. 21 Dec. 2012.

Marshall, David. The New Intertextual Commodity. N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

Murray, Janet. "From game-story to cyberdrama.." . N.p.. Web. 21 Dec 2012.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Brief Look at Intertextual Commodity in Slender: the 8 Pages

Slender is a first person survival horror game by Parsec Productions that follows the Interactive Game of the Cult Film form titled Slender: The Eight Pages. I chose Slender because it offers an opportunity to incorporate text from Murray and Marshall and because it's development is unique; it's a indie-free-game based on forum posts.

Slender is a free game that sets the player in a dark forest in the middle of the night. The player can sprint for a brief amount of time and has a flash light to illuminate the surroundings that they can turn on and off. There are no more controls than this which makes the game easily accessible The flash light has a battery that cannot be recharged or replaced and the player does not know this until the first time the flashlight goes out. At this point they are stuck in the dark. The puzzle aspect of Slender is to find the eight pages that are placed on the games forest map. This is difficult because the pages could be in one of many spots and are randomly placed in one of many set locations each time a new game is started. This adds to fear in the game as the player is never sure where the pages are.

In a comical/parodic way Slender plays with the contest element that Murray talks about. In this way it's quite progressive; when you collect all pages you gain nothing. There are some extra options unlocked from the main menu but the narrative is linked with this presentation; the player dies no matter what. Therein lies some of the collaborative improvisation between the player and the creator of the game; there is no escape from the Slender. But what is the Slender?

Slender is a creature who hides in the woods. He can stretch his arms out to a length of about fifty feet and eats small children. He is afraid of the light and when struck with the players flashlight Slender will sit still. However if the player looks at Slender the screen will begin to fill with static, blinding the player. At this point they must run away or they will be stunned from viewing Slender and then killed by him. This creates a strong feeling of fear and a desire to win the contest: don't die by Slender. In the end, the contest cannot be won, as the player dies no matter what, an interesting commentary between creator and player/user.

Intertexual commodity is here in a unique way; Slender is based off of a forum post on the online website Something Awful. The post gained popularity when the idea of a "Slender Man" surfaced. Soon the story line and characters became based off of aggregated posts. In a way it was created much like a wiki which shows another element of intertextual commodity. Slender itself references it's roots through its design/imagery but it also references it directly in it's ReadMe (manual for PC games), letting the user/player know that this is based off posts from Something Awful. The game/story/mythos has become so popular there is now another version in the works unrelated to The 8 Pages called Slender: Source based off the Source engine (Half-Life series). These elements make the game procedural and participatory, as it is updated regularly based on player/user input. Slender's biggest success is it's ability to show a narrative rather than tell it with the various landmarks that the player visits which visually tell an abstract story with no limitations or boundaries beyond the confines of the game's one map.

Game Links: