This Video Game Tackles Homelessness by Putting the Player on the Streets

Craig Donofrio

Most video games offer users the chance to live out fantasies by shooting row after row of bad guys, by engaging in a mythic quest, or by clawing your way up from life as a pauper to snatch your rightful crown. There’s often brand-new worlds to explore, and lore to learn; a mythos that removes you from the world you know. But for players of “Change: A Homeless Survival Experience,” a new game about to hit the market, you “click to lose everything,” as the tagline goes, and are dumped on the streets. Your only way to win the game? Snag a part-time job and save up enough money to rent an apartment.

The game, developed by the two-person indie studio Delve Interactive, was inspired in part by the creators’ harrowing ordeal launching their previous video game, “Poncho.” Delve’s founders, Dan Hayes and Jack Odell, saved up money working full-time before quitting to focus on “Poncho” in 2014. When the game flopped upon release in 2015, Hayes lost his home, had to take out loans, and had to rely on friends and family to avoid total homelessness. With “Change,” Hayes and Odell wanted to raise awareness. Twenty percent of the game’s profits will be donated to charities dealing with homelessness.

Delve Interactive is located in the United Kingdom, and so is the world of “Change.” The U.K. is an appropriate setting to showcase the issue in a first-world country—homelessness in England and Wales increased 4 percent in 2017, to roughly 320,000 of the 58 million strong population in those two regions.  In the United States, with a population of 327 million, an estimated 553,000 people were homeless on any given night in 2018. Homelessness also affects vulnerable populations disproportionately. A substantive number of homeless people in America are considered to have a severe mental illness and/or substance abuse problems.

In “Change,” you will be able to select the background of the person you’re trying to save from a life on the streets. The default is a person who loses everything suddenly due to debt; other possible player roles may include an addict, veteran, and someone living with a mental illness. Currently only the default character is available for play; the game is in an “early access” stage as of the end of March 2019, meaning it’s close to completion—90 percent, according to its storefront—but also still relying on community input before launch.

The world of “Change” is appropriately bleak. The pixel graphics are drab, the music is mournful, the pace slow. Begging is just a simple click on a passerby, but the continual need to do so—just so you can buy a loaf of bread or a toothbrush—does a good job of communicating the feeling of hopelessness to the player. And the game simulates many of the other depressing challenges the homeless face. While begging, sometimes people give you money, and sometimes they scream at you to get away. When you’re starving (indicated by a score on the game), you might decide to check the trash for something that won’t make you sick. When you sleep, your dreams may be of a life you once had.

In the game, there are three metrics you need to manage: money, happiness, and hygiene. Often, boosts in one level come at the expense of another. You can drink and smoke (cigarettes) for a boost in happiness, but you risk addiction. If your hygiene drops too low because you focus on managing money or happiness, people will be less kind and you won’t be allowed into the library to study for better job prospects. If your happiness drops to zero, your character gives up and resigns to a life on the streets.

Getting a job, even selling papers on the sidewalk, is difficult. Even if you max out your study level, buy better clothes, and wash up in the public bathroom before applying, you almost always have only a 40 percent chance or less of getting hired. In the real world, prospects are likely worse. According to a 2014 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless, 70.4 percent of homeless individuals surveyed said they experienced discrimination by a private business just walking through the door. Other reports have found that the requirement for an address on job application can prevent the homeless from getting a job.

Events outside of the player’s purview occur during “Change” that affect the world and increase challenges. For example, a news story about homeless people panhandling for cash and then driving away in an expensive car makes people less likely to give money. Or the city might set up “hostile architecture” measures, such as altered benches that prevent sleeping. Both are rooted in real-world occurrences. And if police catch you begging too many times, you’ll be moved to another city. You can also steal from shops, and if your crime level gets too high, turn yourself in for a night in jail. Your hygiene and hunger metrics will rise to 100 percent—a sad commentary on our lack of resources for homeless people in need—but your happiness will drastically decline since being deprived of freedom and tossed in a cell isn’t good for the soul.

After a while, when people in the game brushed me off or said, “Sorry! I’m short myself!” or replied they didn’t have any money to spare, I actually got resentful of the little pixel people. Of course they had some change—and of course they could afford it! I just needed a damned loaf of bread.

After several hours with the game, I headed down to my local gas station. A disheveled man, standing by the door and talking to himself as I approached, asked me for change. I gave him a dollar. He followed me inside and fumbled around at the fountain drink station (where drinks are $1). As the cashier rang me up, she gave me a look.

“Did you give that man a dollar?

I nodded. She shook her head.

“Don’t. He does this all the damn time.”