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Video Game Illustrates Reality of Street Life

IExaminer, News Feature, Hien Dang Posted: Jul 12, 2009

Alice and Kev are a homeless family living in a park. Kev is an insane, middle-aged man with a bad temper, who hates children. He often behaves inappropriately around others, which exacerbates his attempts to find a meaningful companion. His daughter, Alice, is a teenager who is constantly exhausted from school, the part-time job she holds, and the cold hard bench she sleeps on at night. And because she gets most of her meals at school, she becomes worried every time the weekend rolls around. You will usually find Alice desperately trying to find a bed to sleep in. She avoids returning to the park as much as possible, not just to avoid the bench but also because her father constantly yells at her and blames her for everything.

The story of Alice and Kev is remarkable in that it portrays a believable account of homeless life, and yet it is only a game.

Homeless video Robin Burkinshaw, a game design student in the UK, orchestrated the story of Alice and Kev through the Sims 3 computer game, based on a poverty challenge posed by makers of the game to play a Sim with no money or house and help it survive.

Burkinshaw gave the characters, Kev and Alice, personality traits like insanity and low self-esteem, took away all their money, and then helped them navigate through life, documenting their actions in an online blog (http://aliceandkev.wordpress.com/). The blog has an underground following and commenters are deeply moved by Alices hard, stressful life.

I try to write the blog like an observer, says Burkinshaw. I will interpret the wishes, moodlets, action descriptions and speech bubbles to put them into natural language in the blog, but everything I describe is something that happened in the game.

Burkinshaws blog struck me as the universal story of homelessness. Although Alice and Kev are based in the UK, the allegory is familiar here in Seattle.

When I was at a vocational school in the Central District of Seattle a few years ago, I sat next to a young woman with a long blonde ponytail. She seemed normal at first glance, but while we waited for class to start, she suddenly turned to me and said, I gotta level with you hereIm homeless. So if I smell bad, Im sorry. I havent had a chance to shower in a long time.

I was flabbergasted! There were certain issues she had that seemed to make her life harder than it had to be, but I respected the fact that she tried so hard to lift herself out of her situation.

Earlier this year, on January 30, there was an annual head count of homeless wanderers throughout cities in King County. Called the One Night Count, this tally found 1,977 people on benches, in alleys, cars, and doorways in Seattle alone. On April 13, the University of Washingtons Daily newspaper reported that a similar survey was being conducted by hundreds of volunteers with UW professors called Homeless Needs Assessment. This survey takes the street count a step further and actually engages in conversation with the homeless, to figure out how these people got to where they are and how they can get out of it. The group hopes to help the city of Seattle ascertain what it needs to do to end homelessness.

homeless videoAn underlying reason for homelessness is the lack of housing. Lori Ichimura, a volunteer attorney at the Housing Justice Project (HJP) (http://www.kcba.org), helps clients fight against unfair housing practices including unlawful evictions. The HJP provides free legal counseling, representation, advocacy, and education for qualifying low-income King County residents, but a troubling pattern that Ichimura noticed was that she rarely met Asian-American clients. Just knowing about the programs available, she says, is an obstacle for tenants to protect themselves.

Kerry Robinson, an HJP manager, says, Tenants should realize that while our community does offer housing resources to those in need, the sad reality is that, in this economy, our resources are shrinking and not keeping pace with need. Shelters have fewer beds available; subsidized housing providers have long waiting lists; pro bono housing lawyers have more cases than staff to handle them; and many formerly affordable housing options are being converted to condos and other more expensive types of housing.

To protect yourself against the prospect of eviction and homelessness, Robinson recommends keeping all housing-related documents including receipts, and acting immediately when you receive an eviction notice. If you are already homeless, resources are available by dialing 211 for Washington States community information line.

The Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (homelessinfo.org) offers ways to get involved to help others, including attending a free workshop about how to take legislative action for affordable housing.

In late 2004, the Seattle P-I reported that a person working full-time had to earn $16.04, well above the states minimum wage of $7.16, to afford a two-bedroom apartment. A two-bedroom apartment would be the ideal living situation for a family like Alice and Kevs.

What else can Alice and Kev teach us?

Some of the stories that come out from people commenting on the blog, and e-mailing me, have taught me so much, says game designer Burkinshaw. Particularly, the episode where Alice gets a job, has an awful first day at work, coming home starving and exhausted, but the first thing she wants to do is give her entire days pay to charity. It seemed astonishingly selfless to me, but many people have said they have known people in a similar situation who have done similar things. So many people who are homeless will give up all they have to help someone in distress.

Perhaps those who suffer know best how others suffer, and it is we who have forgotten. A kind and selfless heart like Alices makes us think.

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