You can be a citizen of the richest country in the world, work full-time, and still be poor. Following rapid social, technological, political and economical changes, the problem of poverty becomes more and more ambiguous. Can games and social simulations help here?
I had about 20 dollars left in my savings when my dog got sick. I was given three choices: let him suffer (free), put him to sleep ($10), treat him at the vet’s ($100). Since I had lost my regular job, life hadn’t been easy for me. I had already had to refuse paying for my kid’s school trip. I had been eating cheap junk food and I hadn’t paid my rent. To top it all off, I had been treated as nothing at my temp job. The whole history with the dog was, however, too much. I decided to pay for his treatment and get indebted. It took me 14 days to go completely broke. The good thing was, it was only a game. The bad thing was that, as the game made clear, millions of people in the USA experience similar problems everyday.
Many faces of poverty
“Ending poverty in all forms everywhere” is the first entry on probably the most ambitious to-do list of our times: the Sustainable Development Goals. The biggest challenge is still to eradicate extreme poverty in less developed countries, currently defined as living on less than $1.90 per person a day. However, not only developing countries face the problem of poverty. While people in the most developed countries live in much better conditions, some of them are still considered poor. In the European Union, for example, in 2015 about 24% of population (more than 113 mln people) was at risk of poverty or social exclusion. And in the same year in the United States, the number of people living below the poverty line was officially estimated as 13,5% – more than 41 mln people.
This illustrates one of the biggest problems with poverty: its multidimensional, complex nature. There is no one, universal definition of what constitutes being poor. “Poverty does not have a single meaning. It has a series of meanings, linked through a series of resemblances”, according to the “Poverty: An International Glossary” publication. The same goes for the attempts to measure poverty. One of the most widely used concepts here is the distinction between absolute and relative poverty. The absolute poverty is defined by costs of fulfilling the very elemental needs, like food, water, clothing or shelter. This concept allows us to check and compare the basics, but it doesn’t account for the fact that people have other needs (social, cultural) and live within specific contexts. The concept of the relative poverty partially answers that concern, defining poverty as living in conditions that wouldn’t be considered a reasonable standard among the given society.
But problems with measurement are only a start here. In a rapidly changing world, poverty can manifest itself in very distinct, often veiled, ways. It is enough to think about the working poor. In 2015 there were 8,6 mln people in the United States who spent at least 27 hours a week in labor force (working or looking for work) but still lived below the official poverty level. And what about “the hidden homeless” – people who can’t afford their own place but their homelessness is not visible (and not included in official statistics) because they are e.g. sofa surfing or squatting? Some media and politicians also add to this obscurity, raising questions such as “is a poor person still poor if they own a flat-screen TV” or other technological goods?
Complexity and misconceptions
The fact that a person or a group of people is poor has usually multiple causes that can depend on many interlinked factors – global and local, structural and individual. Yet, the complexity of poverty is somehow overlooked in both political discourse and common perception. A good example here is the portrayal of the poor through the lense of their deservingness. If they’re poor because they’re “unfortunate”, then they deserve the relief programs. If they’re “lazy”, they don’t deserve that kind of generosity from the state. Such a distinction creates a perfect ideological battlefield for all political options, and it’s hardly a surprise that politics love exploiting it. For example, the concept of the deservingness of the poor has driven the discussion about public policy in the US for almost 50 years now.
The focus on the causes of poverty leads to two common misconceptions about how to “fight” it. The first one lies in believing that if we can distill reasons why people end up poor, we would be able to prevent the consequences. The second misconception is that knowing the causes of a problem makes the problem disappear. Paul Spicker, a long-time poverty scholar and practitioner, argues that such simplification is useless because poverty is “constantly shifting and changing, as an enormous range of processes coincide and collide”. If we want to tackle it effectively, we must accept that poverty is a wicked issue – “complex, multidimensional, unclear and changeable”. It consists of many intertwined problems and processes that change dynamically when new issue replaces an old one.
What to do with poverty, then? Well, the first step would be to follow Spicker’s argument that “responding to poverty is not a matter of solving problems: it is about trying to make things better than they were before”. There are no silver bullet-like policies that can make poverty disappear for good. However, by accepting that our policies “are never going to work comprehensively and exhaustively, but they can address some parts of the complex tangle or inter-related issues”, we can at least make some progress. The key to making things better is to acknowledge the complexity behind poverty. We have to understand that there is dynamics and a number of intertwined causes and objectives to meet. Therefore, there is also a need for cooperation, negotiation and engagement of a broad range of stakeholders. Most importantly, however, there are real stories about human suffering behind every manifestation of poverty, thus we have to be very careful when prioritizing actions and estimating their costs.
Games to foster deeper understanding of poverty
SPENT, the game I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article, is a short browser game that does a great job in fostering empathy and changing attitude towards the poor. At the same time, it offers a harsh critique of the sociopolitical system that grants hardly any social security to people. The game puts you in the shoes of a person who has just lost their job. You have a kid and a pet, almost no savings and lots of upcoming expenses. Your goal is to survive as long as possible with a positive account balance. On the way, you need to make decisions how to use your savings and petty money you will be able to earn while looking for regular job. The best part of the game is that it actually gives you a glimpse of real emotions – fear, shame, anger, frustration, stress, all of them inseparably bound up with poverty. This leads to a deeper understanding of the problem, as it is a human being rather than an abstract notion of “the poor” that is at the center of the events.
While SPENT focuses on the individual perspective, the World’s Future social simulation is an exercise in the systemic nature of poverty. The participants assume the roles of policy- and decision- makers who operate on the national and global levels. Each of them is responsible for the part of the system (e.g. population, food production, goods and services, government agendas). They experience the impacts of their decisions over the long time, trying out different strategies and approaches to particular problems and dealing with emerging problems that stem both from their moves and other, independent, factors. At the same time they can observe how their policies affect the population and how many things can easily go wrong. Similar simulations (Lords of the Valley, Flood Resilience Game, Gifts of Culture) deal with the systemic aspects of poverty on the local level, e.g. in flood- and drought prone river valley.
Social simulations and games offer no silver bullet solution to poverty, of course. They can, however, give their participants a chance to experience the complexity of poverty in action. The bigger, yet still untapped potential of social simulations lies in their applicability to problems affecting our nearest neighborhoods. Regional and local policy makers and stakeholders can easily use social simulations to explore the problem of poverty in their area. Instead of forcing ideology and practising partisanship, they can focus on real actions that may trigger changes. Also members of local communities participating in simulations may use the opportunity to share their experiences with poverty or verify their beliefs against other people’s concepts. Social simulations can also be a safe test ground for exercising different strategies and consulting them with the most concerned citizens. Such a practice may not only widen their perspective but also help them identify potential policy backfires. And finally, putting policy makers in the shoes of people who experience poverty may foster empathy and understanding of what poverty is. Then, maybe, we’ll hear fewer questions who deserves what, and more inquiries about what can be done to make the situation better.
Disclaimer: The author was part of the team that worked on World’s Future, Flood Resilience Game, Gifts of Culture, and Lords of the Valley.