Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to some of the world-changing storytellers that will be speaking at Story Movements, our new catalytic two-day convening held September 15-16, 2016 in Washington, DC that examines platforms and genres of civic media storytelling through the lens of social justice. From documentary film to investigative journalism to virtual reality to participatory storytelling to persuasive gaming to photography, the convening examines and captures the current and future-looking moment in story-led demands for social change.

Jenny Nicholson Headshot

Jenny Nicholson, the creative director at McKinney and the co-creator of the empathy game SPENT

Today, meet Jenny Nicholson, the creative director at McKinney and the co-creator of the empathy game SPENT.

Project Synopsis: SPENT is a virtual game that challenges players to survive 30 days on $1000, while facing the many challenges and roadblocks experienced by Americans living in poverty. Players find themselves putting off bills, neglecting their health, accepting substandard living conditions and making decisions that don’t always fit with their view of themselves as moral people who do the right thing. Since 2011, more than 6 million people in 196 countries have played and SPENT has become a flagship empathy-building tool for activists, educators and even credit card collections departments.

CMSI: What was your path to becoming creative director at McKinney?

Jenny Nicholson: I have a Masters in Social Work, but fell into advertising when North Carolina privatized their mental health system the year I graduated, leaving me with few job opportunities. I started as a proofreader, but quickly realized that I had the talent to become a creative in this business. I’ve been able to combine my creative skills with my social work background and apply unexpected storytelling techniques to big social issues.

CMSI: What inspired you and the team at McKinney to create SPENT?

Jenny Nicholson: Our client, Urban Ministries of Durham, asked us to help people experience the journey of someone who stays in their shelter and goes through their transition programs. We realized there was an even more important journey to document: the one that ends with someone arriving at a homeless shelter. The drift in culture is always that poor people are looking for handouts, but if you work at a homeless services organization, you know that people only come to you for help after spending years struggling on their own and only after they’ve exhausted every other option. It’s easy to say “I’d never be homeless because I make good choices” when you haven’t actually experienced the slow, agonizing struggle to keep your head above water. We wanted to make people understand that being poor isn’t an easy road to a handout, but is actually a grinding, exhausting, soul-wearying process of constantly taking one step forward, only to be knocked two steps back.

CMSI: Why did you choose an online game to tell this story? What do you feel this medium offered you as a storyteller?

Jenny Nicholson: Our main goal in creating SPENT was to erase the distance between “us” and “them.” Too many attempts to increase empathy for people living in poverty use pity as a device. “Feel sorry for these people. You have so much. They have so little.” That’s what the usual message is. The problem with this kind of message is that it allows people living comfortably to feel a tiny bit superior, to believe that there’s a fundamental difference between them and someone struggling to make ends meet. People often say “I’d do anything: work at McDonalds, clean houses, get rid of my car, whatever it took. I’d never get to that point.” So we decided to give them a chance to prove it.

We chose a game structure because we wanted to offer up a true challenge: “Think you’d never end up at a shelter? Prove it.” Then we simply offered up scenarios faced on a daily basis by people living on the edge of homelessness. Play this game and you quickly realize that being poor means, while you would like to make “good” choices, you’re often in a situation where you simply can’t afford to. For example, no parent would ever want to leave a sick child home alone. But not every parent has the luxury of paid leave or the ability to absorb a lost day of wages.

We paired these challenges with a simple, text-driven interface to make the whole thing feel intensely personal. When faced with a challenge that forces you to choose whether to treat an ill pet or let it slowly die, a player isn’t looking at an image of some imaginary pet. Instead, they’re thinking of their own pet. When they must choose buying food over sending their child on a field trip, it’s their own kid they are imagining sitting in the school office, left behind while everyone else in the classroom is gone. Giving the player the power to make decisions and letting them provide their own mental images made the experience so much more powerful than any traditional narrative could be.

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To learn more about SPENT, click here.

To see the complete Story Movements line-up, click here.

To register for Story Movements, click here.