"This is the game that moves as you play" - The Have Nots, X
This is another entry in my "I don't really play video games but" series.
Early this year, the Urban Ministries of Durham collaborated with an advertising agency on a pretty amazing project. They've put together a video game called Spent that mimics what it's like to negotiate the world when you have had all your middle class safety nets taken away and you are starting from zero. You have no savings and you are an unemployed single parent.
Your first task is to find a job. The first thing I did was try to get a temp job, during which, I promptly (and expectedly) failed the typing test. This has happened before in a much more real life and humiliating setting. So I got a job in a restaurant and had to buy the damn uniform. I opted out of their health insurance plan as I could not afford the premiums. The game says "Better not get sick!". Tell me about it. Fuck you, game.
And the game goes on. Rents are raised unexpectedly. Things go wrong. You get sick. All of this costs money and it inevitably snowballs. You have to make awful choices, like if you are running out of food money, do you take the ten bucks your kid's grandma sent him? I ran out of money on day 6 the first time I played. The game gives the option of "asking a friend for money" via facebook. I didn't try this. Also, in real life, when you are poor, most of the people you know are also going to be poor. Also, no one likes to ask their friends for money.
Being poor is really, really expensive, you see.
Here's the thing, and I'm always shocked how the privileged of this world aren't aware of it (and, really, I'm one of them. But I had the incredibly illuminating early learning experience of growing up around people who were far, far more privileged - for the most part- than I was). This is the deal: if you are a white, abled, middle class/upper middle class person, all you have to do is not fuck up. And then everything will be more or less okay. Of course, awful things can happen to anyone - disease, tragedy, what have you. None of us are immune. But a safety net helps greatly. If you are working class or poor, really, everything has to go right. You have to be smart and lucky and work very hard. To transcend one's milieu, you have to be special in one way or another. If you are rich, you can be kind of average and not work that hard and maybe you won't have the best life ever, but nothing truly disastrous will occur either.
And if you are a poor person, and have bad luck, you are going to be royally screwed. Spent demonstrates this tersely and clearly.
The class based nastiness in our culture seems to be going through a really bad phase. Sneering at poor people seems to have become a national past time. A co-worker this week is going to a "White Trash Party". Which, as far as I can tell, is a bunch of rich people making fun of a bunch of poor people. This is really complicated stuff, entwined with all sorts of issues of race and gender (non-white people and women are more likely to be poor), and lord knows, I don't have any answers. But maybe the first thing we need to do, is to have maybe just a tiny bit of empathy.
Television seems to be going through a particularly vile patch of worthless rich people worship (and much as I love Top Chef: Bravo, will you please just shut the fuck up and go away please?). Occasionally you see a poor or working class person who is presented for the purposes of mockery. There was a pretty great piece up at The Awl the other day about a truly repulsive new TV show called Repo Games which is worth a look. As mentioned here before, Jennifer L. Ponzer's book, Reality Bites Back is pretty much a must read at this point for anyone who has even a passing interest in what we watch. She points out, in great detail, how these shows reinforce a truly regressive version of the status quo. One in which poor people and women are to be ridiculed and to be Paris Hilton's fake BFF is something that one humiliates oneself to be.
Empathy happens when people acknowledge that other people are, like, human. And have exactly the same sorts of feelings they have. It's the opposite of objectification, that often misunderstood concept that strips people of their humanity. Which brings me to a piece in this week's New York Magazine, written by Roseanne about her show (Read it! Seriously, just read it. God I love her. She writes as only someone with nothing else to lose writes). I don't think you see enough about Roseanne when you see articles about remarkable and groundbreaking television. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe because it was a sitcom about a family, the most standard television format imaginable, it gets looked over. Maybe it's more insidious. I don't know. I miss the Connor family, and loved them as did the millions of other Americans who made the show number one in the ratings for half a decade. The Joss Whedon penned "Brain Dead Poet's Society" makes me cry just thinking about it, in which Darlene reads her poem in which she writes "too short to be quarterback, too plain to be queen".
So what I'm saying is, it would be nice if there were some working class Americans on TV who weren't the objects of ridicule. And I'm no Socialist, but this ultra-Capitalism we seem to be embracing is so culturally unhealthy and just gross. So, obviously, this grim little video game isn't going to do much in the face of all those "Housewives (TM)", but it's so bracing after a media diet that can seem like the equivalent of having frosting for dinner. Sweet, but so, so sick-making.