We hosted a public game play session of “A Paycheck Away” as part of the Spirit and Place Festival last Friday, November 9th. 140 people gathered together to play as a homeless character and try to get out of homelessness within three months. We’ve play tested this game several times with groups of all shapes and sizes, and the results of game play showed us just how powerful game based learning  and “games for change” can be. The game was even featured in NUVO here in Indianapolis.

A Paycheck Away - Game Based Learning

You see, a major component of the A Paycheck Away experience is discussion that happens before and after the game. We start the game by asking people to write their perceptions of homelessness on a piece of paper. We typically see things like “drug addicts, lazy, too prideful to go live with family, or mentally ill.” The picture that emerges after playing is quite different. As it turns out, so much of what life throws at us is out of our control — it’s luck. And homelessness is really a symptom of more widespread societal problems… not a cause.

And by the end of our game play session… participants were coming up with solutions. Lots of them, in fact, players left quite a pile:

Solutions from A Paycheck Away
Participants wrote down their ideas and solutions while debriefing.

That’s the power of game based learning. Sure, watching a video or presentation on the problem of homelessness might make you feel bad about the situation, but games immerse you in a scenario and allow you to feel what it’s like in an emotional level.

One challenge of holding a game based learning experience in a short window of time like we did is getting everyone up to speed on the rules quickly. Think of the time it might take you to learn the rules of a new video game or board game with family. We did not have that kind of time to devote to our event! Our goal was to have people play through three months of homelessness in one hour. We did this by creating a “Game Master” role. Game Masters were trained prior to the event and acted as Township Trustee, Employer, Banker, and Settler of Disputes. They guided people through the experience and explained the rules as they went. This approach was highly effective for us.

Robby Slaughter - A Paycheck Away Game Master
Robby Slaughter (left) leans forward to explain a rule to his table. He was a trained Game Master.

Without further ado, let’s look at some of the central issues surrounding homelessness our players identified… and potential solutions

Central Issues Surrounding Homelessness

    • Childcare costs make it hard for homeless parents to take jobs. Childcare is expensive and many low wage jobs do not equal the cost of childcare.
    • Many homeless individuals lack transportation. A shortage of bus lines mean it is impossible for them to get to potential jobs.
    • Quality early childhood education and daycare services are not available in poor communities.
    • Even though early childhood education and quality education in general are important to outcomes for children, many individuals in a community who do not have children do not want to pay taxes to support public schools. This ultimately hurts the community because it contributes to a future generation of individuals who require more public assistance.
    • Individuals with an hourly job who have a sick child may lose their job if they skip work to take care of the child.
    • Having a fixed income, or a government pension in the case of homeless veterans, helped their characters’ situations quite a bit in the game.
    • Lack of good, steady jobs is more of an issue than lack of cash.
    • Having a spouse makes homelessness much more manageable, both for emotional and financial support.
    • Homelessness is only something that happens when it is already too late to provide meaningful help.
    • When government assistance has too much red tape or too many restrictions, it can become very limiting.
    • Ultimately, it is through working that people truly become self sufficient, yet low wages of many jobs leave the homeless no better off than if they stayed on public assistance. It’s a vicious cycle.
    • Daycare is not available at night for people who work in the evenings or work a second job.
    • Being homeless actually takes alot of energy. The homeless are trying to figure out very short-term things while living day to day. They actually have to budget more carefully than those in the middle class.
    • Ultimately… luck plays a much larger role in life than most players thought. Not everyone simply made a bad choice.
    • Many of the homeless are actually employed or underemployed, but simply cannot afford housing because their wages are too low.
Suggested Solutions to Homelessness:
    • Create a program where the elderly watch young children during the day. This would reinvigorate the elderly while providing less expensive childcare.
    • Emphasize basic financial education and personal budgeting more in public schools.
    • Create more effective organizations to connect people to jobs.
    • Create a program that connects people for ride sharing and carpooling so they can get to jobs that are off a bus line.
    • Lobby for improved public transit in urban areas.
    • Create more cheap, affordable housing that is mixed in to both low and high income areas instead of creating divisions in urban communities.
    • Improve early education for 2-5 year olds and make it mandatory.
    • Help homeless and low income families create small businesses in a co-op model of exchanging basic goods and services to help them get out of survival mode.
    • Develop more “all-inclusive” village or communal groups similar to the Amish or rural towns with community transportation, child care and health care.
    • Teach farming and gardening in pockets of urban areas. This allows people to build basic skills, produce goods to sell in farmers markets, and barter for other needs. This could be similar to Heifer International, but with a local focus.
    • Create job training and support programs that many people receiving public assistance must attend as part of their assistance.
    • Make some forms of birth control available over the counter (OTC).
    • Open the lobbies of some downtown businesses at night for the homeless to sleep on a temporary basis.
    • Allow wealthy suburban areas to “adopt” a rural neighborhood through a coordinated charitable program.
    • Make substance abuse programs more available and inclusive to families. Create after-care substance abuse programs to provide an ongoing support system.
    • Give tax breaks to employers who give people a “raise” in the form of free childcare or transportation to work rather than just a salary increase.
    • Create shared homes and co-ops where the homeless can live with roommates.
    • Encourage more community-oriented, family first values in children.

Again, these are solutions A Paycheck Away players proposed to help solve homelessness after playing the game. Some of them might work, others wouldn’t. What works in one community might fail in another. The point here is to focus on the sheer volume of reactions and solutions we generated after just an hour of playing a game. It’s tough to get that type of engagement through a traditional presentation.

One of our goals for this game is to facilitate it for other groups in the future. In exchange for a donation to Dayspring Center, a temporary homeless shelter in Indianapolis, individuals or groups can purchase a game and hire a trained facilitator to come and lead the experience. Contact us to learn more. You can view a photo album from the event on our Facebook Page.


TiER1 Performance Indy

4022 Arbor Lane
New Palestine, IN 46163

See all our locations here.

phone: (317) 861-7281


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