Steven is on the brink of homelessness. A 53-year-old Army veteran suffering from PTSD and depression, he received an honorable discharge after the Gulf War. He’s lost his job, his ex-wife won’t talk to him and he’s lost touch with his two adult children. He’s also afflicted with a profound case of unreality.
You see, Steven is a character in a A Paycheck Away, a game developed for this year’s Spirit & Place in order to teach players about homelessness in Indianapolis.
A Paycheck Away was developed by Bottom Line Performance Inc., which designs products, such as games, that help people or organizations get results or behavioral changes, and the Dayspring Center, an emergency shelter for families with children. Characters are based off of real clients or are typical of the local homeless population.
Gameplay is straightforward: Four players are given a packet with a profile sheet that has a picture of and information about their character. Players start with an amount of money that depends on his or her character’s situation. For instance, the player who gets Willa and Dave, a couple, will start with $520 per month. Dave is unemployed. Willa works at a convenience store 35 hours a week at minimum wage. They live in a pay-by-the-week hotel and pay $125 week in groceries.
Another character in the game, Steven, has no trouble finding jobs, but can’t quite keep them because of substance abuse problems. Each month, the player with Steven’s profile rolls a die to see if he can get into a substance abuse program, which would help him keep his job. The chances aren’t good, just as it’s difficult to get into such programs in real life.
Characters get paid in week two, but only if they have a job in the game. And then the bills come due. Willa and Dave usually don’t have enough money to afford both rent and groceries, so they must make the choice: food or shelter. At the end of one month in the game, all players must assess their housing situation.
“That’s when reality kicks in,” said Steve Boller, marketing and communications strategist at Bottom Line. “They have to roll to see if an exception can be made for them at their shelter, because shelters are usually only 30 days, for an extra 30 days, or if they can get into emergency housing, which there isn’t very much of. Then, they go into second month.”
Play continues, and chance cards, much like those drawn in Monopoly, continue to bring up unforeseen ill- nesses, expenses or good fortune. The game finishes after three months.
“There were obstacles in there that I hadn’t even thought of myself,” said Herzog, development coordinator at Dayspring Center. “For example, having to make the choice between buying medicine for your child or buying food for that week.”
The percentage of characters in the game who can manage to get themselves out of homelessness closely mirrors the numbers in reality.
“It has to be an immersive and emotional experience,” Boller said. “We tend to learn by doing and by playing a game, you can have the experience. You’re simulating yourself in homelessness the same way you would
play the role of real estate tycoon in Monopoly. It’s as close as you can get to understanding the experience of homelessness without becoming homeless yourself.”
At the end of the game, players are given an opportunity to discuss what they’ve learned.
“The real reason (for the game) is the discussion after,” Boller said. “We play-tested the game at IUPUI. The discussions afterwards are amazing. People start coming up with solutions.”