SnapSim Impact

Danielle, Edwin, Harihar, Tami

SnapSim is an interactive text-based narrative in which a player takes on the role of a single parent on SNAP shopping for food for themself and their two children. Each food item has a story indicating its importance to the family, and the narrative forces the player to forgo some foods in order to stay within budget.

The goal of the project is to evoke empathy in our audience by simulating some of the challenges faced by a family shopping on SNAP. We chose this goal because, as we did our weekly mini-assignments, we found that publicly available datasets and visualizations failed to capture the challenges faced by the individual family on SNAP, but instead focused on aggregates (ex. obesity percentages by state). Therefore, we aimed to make a data story which would humanize the data and effectively illustrate the sacrifices that families on SNAP make in a way that numbers could not. We hoped that such a data story would cause the player to feel empathy for such families.

Our target audience was people who were not SNAP participants and who were from middle-class or rich households because they were least likely to be experiencing the same challenges as those faced by families on SNAP. Because MIT students were readily accessible participants, our study focused on them.

We created two variants of our interactive narrative. We tested each variant with four different players. We each sat with the players and guided the experience. At the end of the narrative, we tied it back to reality by showing the player a map indicating SNAP participation around the country. Then, each player completed a survey giving feedback on the experience.

Based on interaction with players and the feedback in the surveys, we made a number of observations. First, all of the players remarked that SNAP does not give enough money to families (see quotes below). However, some of the player responses may have been due to prior belief rather than SnapSim.

“I have always been pretty skeptical of SNAP as giving people enough money to eat “

“Just learned about SNAP. its a good idea but [it] doesn’t seem like a lot of money to buy groceries”

“86 dollars is really low for three people”

Six of the players indicated that $100-$150 (rather than the allotted $86) would be more reasonable to buy groceries.

In addition, all but one player indicated that SNAP requires sacrifices.

“Yes. I felt bad buying things that were unhealthy because I knew that I wouldn’t have enough money to buy both. At the same time, I didn’t want to buy food that would go bad because the kids won’t eat it.”

“Well I had to get rid of half of my groceries soooo. I didn’t like having to get rid of all the things my kids like. I also didn’t like that I had to choose all or nothing on each item – I couldn’t alter the amounts or exchange chicken breast for thighs, etc.”

“When I started I added lots of stuff to cart because I thought I needed them. I spent over 100 dollars and had to give up a lot of stuff”

Finally, after showing the map of SNAP participation rates and food banks, every player said that they would be interested in volunteering or donating to a local food bank some time in the future. While showing players how they can help is valuable, we can’t know whether they actually will volunteer.

It is difficult to measure empathy, but the results of our testing seem promising. The players were able to recognize that shopping on SNAP requires some difficult sacrifices,, and that they would be interested in helping out a food bank.

SnapSim Presentation

Danielle, Edwin, Harihar, Tami

We have created a Google slideshow

We have two variants of our SnapSim.

The first one takes the player through the grocery store experience.

The second one focuses on the difficulties of removing items from the grocery cart.

Both variants use a map.

SnapSim is designed as a guided experience. That is, the researcher (one of the four members on our team) takes the player through the narrative and talks to them as they make their way through.

SnapSim Methodology

Danielle, Edwin, Harihar, Tami

Our project goal was to make our audience feel empathy for families on SNAP who must make sacrifices when shopping. We implemented this goal by creating an interactive text-based narrative.

Our first prototype was a game that utilized food price data from the Market Basket circular over 10 weeks. The dataset presents the data as scanned images, so we manually transcribed the items and prices. It also used nutrition information from the National Nutrient Database and restaurant websites (ex. McDonalds). In the game, the player aimed to buy a healthy week of food while staying under budget. However, we found that the addition of nutrition data did not help foster empathy (based on responses to our post-game survey), so we omitted nutrition in our final project.

For our next iteration, we learned about other connections people have to food and used that to tell a story to evoke empathy. To understand the demographics of SNAP families, we studied the examined the income data and SNAP benefit data from the the Food Environment Atlas and read the “Characteristics of SNAP Households” report from the USDA. To understand people’s connection to food, we created a survey and received about 20 responses from friends. These responses illustrated some reasons that people eat the foods that they do.

With that, we moved from a game structure to an interactive narrative. Rather than using data to evoke empathy, we chose to use stories. We built a character fitting the demographic data and we created stories around food which captured some of the connections we observed in our survey responses. To determine the character’s budget, we used income and monthly SNAP benefit data from the USDA Food Environment Atlas. We supported our numbers by looking up salaries on the Bureau of Labor Statistics and using a SNAP benefit calculator.

We aimed to conclude the narrative by connecting it back to reality. To do this, we created a map indicating SNAP participation rates (hoping that a user’s connection to their state or country would help them identify with the data) and the locations of food banks around the country (as a call to action). Getting data on food bank locations was very time consuming. We fetched HTML from Feeding America and wrote a Python script to clean it. We then used Google’s geocoding service to convert the addresses to latitudes and longitudes.

We had four total iterations of our interactive narrative – each had a different user experience. The changes were guided by questionnaires given to our testers and feedback from games expert Prof. Sara Zaidan.

Our final product is an interactive text-based narrative. The player is a single mother grocery shopping for herself and her two children. Each food item has a story indicating its importance to the family. In order to stay within budget, the player must forgo buying some of the foods. At the end, we show the player a map of SNAP participation around the country to illustrate that for some families, this game may be a reality. The map also displays food banks (and links to their websites), encouraging the user to act on their empathy by donating or volunteering.

We created two variants of our project: one focusing on removing items to the grocery cart, and the other focusing on adding items to the grocery cart.

We have a number of repositories for our project:


first prototype

second prototype

final project (variant 1)

final project (variant 2)