Teaching low-wage work with playspent.org

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 8.24.40 AMOne of the activities that went particularly well in my “Women and Work” class last winter used the website playspent.org. This website is an online “game” that challenges users to make it through the month with one of three low-wage jobs without going broke. The premise is that you are one of the many Americans who have just lost your job and your home and are down to your last $1,000 in savings. Users first select a job, then choose how far away from that job to live. At each decision-point, the consequences are made clear through short pop-up text boxes and interactive features. For example, if they choose to live farther away from their job in order to reduce rent costs, their gas expenses for commuting to the job go up. After several set-up choices are made, the month begins. Users are faced with a series of real-life scenarios to respond to as the month progresses. For example,

“Your child wants to join an after-school sports team, which requires a physical and a uniform. What do you do? Say yes ($50). Say no.”

or

“Two bills are due today. What do you want to do? Pay gas bill ($100). Pay electric bill ($125). Pay them both ($225). Borrow money from a friend.”

At other moments users have to select what items to purchase at the grocery store, get paid, get strikes on their record for taking time off from work to contest a speeding ticket in court or stay home sick. At each decision point, short pop-up text puts the decision into a national context, and the amount of money they have left to get through the rest of the month changes accordingly.

I had my students “play” the game in class on one of the days dedicated to wages. I had a regular classroom, not a computer lab, so this required students to bring their own laptops. The day before I asked for a show of hands of how many people had laptops that they could conveniently bring to our next class, and enough hands went up to proceed. On the appointed day there were enough laptops in the room for students to break into groups of two to four to play the game together. Each group played the game on their own. Many went through it several times to see how they fared while making different decisions. The discussion questions below were displayed on the overhead projector while they played. I floated around the room to see how people were progressing while they played. Students got very involved with the activity, as indicated by the difficulty I had getting them to stop and the amount of noise they made!

After I called a halt to the game and got everyone to close their laptops, we discussed the experience with the questions below. (I adapted these questions from similar ones provided by Brooke Kelley on the Sociologists for Women in Society list-serve. Thanks Brooke!)

  • How many of you made it through the month without running out of money?
  • If you made it through the month without running out of money, how much longer do you think you could have made it under the conditions of the exercise?
  • What surprised you about this exercise?
  • What parallels did you see between this exercise and the Ehrenreich reading?
  • Did you make any decisions that seemed wise at the time but which you later regretted?
  • This game isn’t gender-specific. How does it relate to our class theme of Women and Work?

The students had lots to say. Those that grew up in more financially stable households found the experience of trying on low-wage work eye-opening. Students that grew up facing similar financial difficulties seemed to find the experience validating, and shared further examples with the rest of the class. All in all, this is an activity I would do again.

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This activity was paired with the following readings:

Kessler-Harris, Alice. 1990. A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

  • “The Wage Conceived”

Sacks, N. E. and C. Marrone. 2004. Gender and Work in Today’s World: A Reader. Cambridge: Westview Press.

  • Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed: Selling in Minnesota”

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