Shaking Up Disaster Preparedness With Video Games
by Gabe Korer BA ’23
Imagine moving through a devastated city in search of your dog, Tsu (short for “tsunami”), who escaped in the aftermath of a massive earthquake. Along the way, you come across situations that demand your attention: unpurified drinking water, aftershocks, gas leaks, and more. By the time you’re reunited with Tsu, you’ve encountered a wide variety of problems that arise before, during, and after a major earthquake.
Welcome to Cascadia 9.0, a video game created by L&C’s earthquake preparedness project that evokes the experience of a real-life earthquake. The game takes its name from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile fault off the Pacific Coast, which has the potential to produce a magnitude 9.0 earthquake.
Cascadia 9.0 was developed as part of an ongoing research effort to understand what motivates young adults to prepare for earthquakes and other natural disasters. Preparedness messaging often targets families and homeowners, leaving young people vulnerable. But young adults—given their physical capacity, creativity, and ability to mobilize—have a vital role to play in the region’s disaster response. What’s the best way to reach them?
An Interdisciplinary Approach
Liz Safran, associate professor of geological science and director of the Earth system science and environmental studies programs. “We don’t really have a culture in the Pacific Northwest where we appreciate that this sort of disaster is part of the place where we live, so I became interested in attacking that piece of the problem,” Safran said.The earthquake preparedness project is the brainchild of
In 2016, Safran organized an interdisciplinary team to pursue the project. Erik Nilsen, associate professor of psychology, specializes in human-computer interaction and leads the design and execution of the team’s experiments. Peter Drake, associate professor of computer science, oversees programming and game development. Bryan Sebok, associate professor of rhetoric and media studies, plays a crucial role in constructing the game’s narrative and facilitating focus groups. Safran manages the project and is the liaison with local emergency managers to ensure accuracy of disaster procedures and practices.
The team’s use of video games as digital interactive environments began in 2018 with a proof-of-concept pilot study. In 2019, the team received a four-year $559,617 grant in support of the project.
Active Gaming vs. Passive Searching
The team uses video games as research tools because they are more immersive than traditional media and can be used to simulate the outcomes of actions made under conditions that are rare in real life. They also allow room for solving problems in lots of different ways and fit with the media preferences of young adults.
In their most recent experiment, which concluded in early spring 2022, the researchers created a treatment group that played the video game and a control group that searched the internet for information. Using pre-experiment and post-experiment survey data, the researchers analyzed what participants had learned and how it affected their motivation or action toward preparing for earthquakes. In addition, they ran focus groups to gain more insight into what participants were thinking.
“We were trying to get some basic understanding of what people can learn from games and what games can do to boost people’s intentions to prepare for earthquakes,” Safran said.
In analyzing the data, they found that participants within the video game group spent longer on their task, downloaded more information right afterward, and felt more confident about coping with some key earthquake-related challenges, such as finding and purifying water and having good sanitation. “We discovered that the elements they seemed to remember best and reflect on were those that required ‘stickiness,’ where they had to go through a series of actions or problem solving to be successful in the game,” Nilsen said.
Throughout the multiyear research process, students have been heavily involved in a number of areas, including programming, developing survey materials, and helping with data analysis. Often, students work on the project over the summer through the John S. Rogers Science Program. In total, roughly 55 students have worked on either the programming or behavioral aspects of the project since inception, with dozens more contributing to areas such as play-testing and edutainment strategies.
Drake, who is in charge of overseeing the game’s programming, says students have been “absolutely essential” to this project.
“There are so many angles,” he explained. “There’s the pure software side of building the game. There’s the game design part of it, trying to make it fun, somewhat realistic, and entertaining. And there’s the educational part, making sure we’re offering the right sort of advice that’s been vetted with disaster management officials.”
Skye Russ BA ’23 has been one of the students working on the programming aspect of the game.
“We worked in teams of students and faculty, where the students kind of filled all of the gaps and did most of the coding for the game,” Russ said. “Our tasks could vary from the core systems (allowing the player to move, inventory, dialogue, quests, minigames), to 3D assets (building the 3D world that our player experiences, tweaking preexisting assets to fit our needs, creating whole new assets), to fixing bugs.”
Russ notes how the finished version of the game is everything they had hoped for when they first joined on to the project.
“I’m proud of how Cascadia 9.0 turned out,” Russ said. “It is engaging, informative, and, most of all, fun to play.”
Reflecting on what they have achieved so far, Safran believes that Cascadia 9.0 is a useful tool, representing an engaging medium through which relevant information and choices can be provided.
“I’m pretty pleased with the first game,” Safran said. “It covers a lot of territory. We had to make it that way because it needed to be sufficiently information-rich to compare with the web, which has all the information.”
Moving forward, the research team is planning additional experiments that will build off the data they have gained thus far. They will use future games (Cascadia 9.1, 9.2, etc.) to explore the importance of cooperation, environment, and social reinforcement on motivation to prepare.
Cascadia 9.0 can be accessed at Cascadia9game.org. Those who are interested in learning more about earthquake preparation can also participate in the upcoming Great Oregon Shakeout on October 20, when Oregonians will practice drills and learn about earthquake safety.