On the Track: How Games Can Help Make Us Disaster Ready
By Jenny Gottstein
Last August, I embarked on a cross-country train trip to explore how games might be used for disaster preparedness.
In each city I met with first responders, Red Cross chapters, disaster management agencies, and community leaders. The goal was to identify ways to increase resilience through interactive games. The trip was fascinating, and exposed some core truths about our country’s relationship with disasters.
Here is what I learned:
1) The coastal cities generally feel vulnerable and unprepared. By contrast, the states in the middle of the country feel much more confident and capable. For example, everyone I spoke to in Montana was certified in some sort of disaster training, had survived 20 different avalanches or snow storms, and had impressive stockpiles of food and supplies. In other words, Montana is ready.
2) Different regions are facing different challenges in the effort to become more resilient. In Seattle, disaster preparedness professionals need help communicating safety messages to high school and college students. In Milwaukee, the main fear is extreme weather and water contamination. In New York, preparedness resources have to be translated to a population that speaks over 800 different languages. My job was to determine how game mechanics might be applied to overcome these hurdles.
3) Socio-economic factors play a huge role in the severity and impact of disasters. Therefore we can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to preparedness. Building a resilient community doesn’t start and end with emergency kits. We have to tackle larger issues of transportation, housing, and resources way before disasters happen.
4) Despite major disparities across the country, two things remain true for every individual: Confidence and kindness are essential qualities during a crisis. We might be thrown into unprecedented scenarios, but the first step is having confidence in our ability to respond, and the second step is, quite simply, to be kind to others. Kindness can go a long way in de-escalating a crisis. Which presents an interesting challenge: how do we teach this concept through gaming?
5) I’ve heard many people blame our country’s lack of preparedness on apathy. How else would you explain the fact that people still don’t have Go Bags or basic emergency plans for their family? But I don’t think “apathy” is the issue. I believe disasters are so enormous and terrifying, that people simply block them out. It is too big, it is too inaccessible. Therefore the problem isn’t apathy, it is paralysis.
6) The act of “getting prepared” can be isolating and boring. Would I rather go to the hardware store and pick out flashlights for a crisis that is too scary to think about, or spend time with my family and friends? The latter, obviously.
7) Finally, there is one thing that was true in every place I visited on my trip, one thing that united everyone in these incredibly diverse regions: people are more interested and responsive to emergency preparedness messages that are fun and engaging rather than messages focused on motivating people through fear.
So by creating interactive games, we can offer people a different entry point – an opportunity to tackle disaster preparedness in a way that is social, memorable, and fun. We can make something that is boring and isolating and turn it into something engaging and social. We can turn something that is paralyzing, into something that is accessible. We can design games that are entertaining and thought-provoking, without trivializing the disaster experience.
Over the next few years I’ll be exploring these nuances, and designing games as tools for resilience. If you find this interesting, please join me!
Jenny Gottstein is the Director of Games and a senior event producer for Go Game. Jenny has led interactive game projects, creativity trainings and design workshops around the world. Click here to read more about Jenny’s trip.
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