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Oct. 10, 2017

Simulation game becomes teaching tool for rural health providers

For many low-income residents of rural Michigan, the daily struggle to make ends meet is more than just a game.

“There’s a tendency to think that people who struggle with these challenges, that it’s their own fault,” said Andrea Wendling, director of the Rural Health Curriculum for Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

With more than $14,000 in total grants from the Midland Area Community Foundation and the Clare County Community Foundation, Wendling and Julia Terhune, assistant director of the Rural Health Curriculum, are developing and testing a board game that simulates the everyday struggles poor people in rural areas often face.

The game, Rural Poverty Simulation, will be offered to health care workers, teachers, nurses, social workers and others who serve low-income, rural residents in Clare and Midland counties.

The goal is “to stimulate discussion and try to build empathy,” Wendling said, adding that she wants players “to understand that many people are facing these challenges, even if they don’t see them.”

“Think of it as Monopoly turned on its head,” she said. “In this game, no one wins. Players are randomly assigned profiles giving some more financial resources than others. As players roll the dice and move along the board, they come up against problems and don’t necessarily have the same resources to deal with them.”

She added that periodically players will draw “reality cards” that pose certain challenges such as being evicted, the furnace giving out, and needing food but not having any money. Players must make the same kinds of undesirable choices that low-income residents often face in the real world.

For the past three years, students in the Rural Health Curriculum have played an earlier version of the game with some students already being able to relate to some of those challenges.

“I’ve had students who’ve said, ‘I was that kid,’” Wendling said. “The game is not fun, and in fact, is quite frustrating as players try to make it through a typical month faced by low-income, rural residents. Even for those with more resources, it can be frustrating to see other players struggle.”

Students in the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences are helping Wendling and Terhune refine the game.

“We’re hoping that the game will eventually be used on a national level,” said Wendling.