On the Track: How Games Can Help Make Us Disaster Ready

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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.Woman demonstrating how to perform CPR

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.

Jenny  Gottstein_small_headcrop
Jenny Gottstein


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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33 comments on “On the Track: How Games Can Help Make Us Disaster Ready”

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    A very novel approach to preparing for an emergency scenario.
    I know that during my time in the military, we would have many ‘training exercises’, these were made more tolerable by making them more engaging and ‘fun’.
    What would you recommend for a “Go Bags'” contents?


    What an interesting blog! I agree with you when you say that many people do not like to get prepared for a natural disaster because it is something frightening so they block them out. I live in Southern California and I feel that California is one of those states that the people are hesitant to prepare for natural disasters because they are not very common out here therefore we assume they will not happen out here, well besides earthquakes of course. However, with earthquakes being common over here and tough to prepare for, I was wondering how can a game be helpful to make us ready for a disaster like a big earthquake?

    I like the concept behind this idea but didn’t feel that it was very informative on the topic. However, I do agree that people do need to start talking about the what ifs if a national disaster were to occur. I know that in my family we haven’t really gone into depth about what we would do if such a disaster were to occur. What would be a good way to get everyone else aware of how the should be prepared?

    I would have assumed that the coastal areas would be as equipped and prepared for natural disasters as those who reside in central areas. What were some of the games you introduced to the people who were less knowledgable on how to prepare for natural disasters?

    – That is so cool that everyone that was spoken to was trained in disaster training.
    -This gave me a new perspective on how to perpare for disasters, I honestly rarely think about it. Having a plan seems to be a great idea.
    -What should emergency kits consist of for someone in southern California?

    Great blog! It’s interesting to read that everyone has different disaster preparedness awareness depending on the region you live in. Games are a great way to try to encourage people to be aware and ready for any disaster. I currently work at Keck Medical of USC, and each year they have a safety fair were they have plenty of games and give aways to help workers prepare (just last year they brought an earthquake stimulator that would give us a better idea of how a 8.0 earthquake would feel like). In your blog you mention that coastal cities are very vulnerable are unprepared for disasters, any suggestions on how that can improve?

    I think it is important and a great idea to come up with entertaining ideas to make people more prepared for disasters. I agree with the author that getting prepared is isolating and boring. People might do exercises for disaster preparation once in a while, but they do not stay updated with it. I remember when I was younger in elementary school and we were taught how important it was to have an emergency evacuation plan, or an emergency kit, but when I would ask my mom why we did not have an evacuation plan or emergency kit, she made sure that I knew that we would be safe no matter what, but I don’t think that she realized she was “paralyzed” and not apathetic. Do you think people will be more proactive in disaster preparedness if not only games were involved, but reminders of how important it is in case of an emergency? People may be more interested if it is feels like fun to them, instead of a chore.

    I found this post very interesting and it is smart to use games to help prepare people, because it is fun. I also totally agree that in our country there are still people who don’t have an emergency plan. My family being one of them. I remember when I was younger, I would always see on the news tips and what you should have to prepare for a big earthquake. I would comment about it to my mom and she would always say “Yeah, Thats a good idea,” but I guess she would throw it in the back of her mind because she just didn’t wanna think about it, or there were other things to do that had to do with “Now” rather than the future. Would these games also be appropriate for kids to play? I just believe that everyone no matter the age should get the skills and be prepared for a disaster.

    I think that the subject of “getting prepared” isn’t typically a fun one, so I do love this approach on educating others through games. In my experience with training employees in the workplace, I have found that interactive activities and games were memorable most effective. It would be interesting to know, who is your initial target group that you’d like to educate with these games?

    I believe that disaster awareness is important for all of us. No matter where we live, we should be prepared for ourselves. Such as storing water, rice, or cans of foods are very helpful. My experience with emergency disaster was when we got the huge storm hit few years ago in Southern California. I remembered at the time, people are helping each other out on the street and in the hospitals for people who got hurt. I also believe that learning CPR is very helpful when we face disasters because it can save lives. People need to help each other out during the hardships with kindness and generosity.Share foods that you have stored or water or give them a place to stay during those time . If we can do that, we will save many lives. Do you agree that we should all learn how to do CPR to help save lives?

    I think educating people for better understanding the risks or disaster they will face is very important.
    Reduce risks and damages are major goals , we should build our confidence of how can we count on each other and ready for the disasters throughout the games. hopefully, We can get early warning system helps us to avoid and predict threats . What should we do to improve each city or community become more involved the act of ” getting Prepared” ?

    thank you

    I think that creating games to help us learn emergency plans to make us disaster ready will be good for our community because people may actually enjoy it and be able to apply it to life more accurately. I used to play sims and there were always fires and it really taught me what I should do during a fire when it comes to putting it out and calling the fire department. When it comes to being disaster ready, what kind of interactive games can be created to inform us on emergencies plans we should know?

    This article really brings to mind many points that are so often overlooked. I do think though, in regards to point #5, that one of the biggest problems we face here in America, isn’t necessarily “apathy” or “fear”, but rather the idea of invincibility. Especially in the younger generations, the ones whom have never seen a true crisis up close and personal, we see more and more disregard for common-sense precautions. This could be attributed to the influx of music and movies that produce a false sense of heroism. I know that in having conversations with my child, my husband will sometimes chime in with a “that will never happen here”, but we were raised far differently and I want to make sure my family is prepared for everything. Does anyone have any suggestions as to new and fun ways of involving your children in preparing the family?

    This article really spoke to me, I feel that I would have an emergency kit or be more prepared for an emergency if it wasn’t such a negative thought. I think a lot of people including myself have the mentality that a natural disaster is not going to occur, and don’t feel the need to prepare for it. How can individual families plan for transportation and housing? Where can I find a list of shelters near me if there was ever a natural disaster?

    I strongly believe and agree that everyone should be ready for disasters because it can happen anytime. Although the thought of it is scary, it will help people to survive the disasters. What would be the best response to a disaster?

    I really enjoyed reading this article, it was very informative and interesting. I remember learning about how to prepare for disasters in high school, however, nothing really stuck. I feel like every year we prepared by having drills but it was always boring and ineffective since when a disaster really did occur many students still didn’t know what to do. I feel like changing the way we obtain the information on getting prepared for disasters into an interactive game will help students retain the information. However, I think that getting people to be prepared too many times can lessen the severity of being prepared. How often should we have people provide these interactive games when disasters, especially in California, don’t occur often?

    Interesting article and the concepts that were suggested are brilliant! Especially now that our lives revolve around the use of technology, we should do information dissemination interactively using technology. Developing games that are fun, entertaining and at the same time educational is what we need in order to get the society’s attention on how to prepare in case of emergencies. Sometimes I play video games that are about role playing and strategy, these games makes me think strategies and plan out action in order to achieve the tasks that should be done. What do you think about using social media and game apps? I think it would reach more people since everything spreads like a wild fire in this platform.

    #1. This article was informative and made me realize that with the increase in natural disasters affecting the world, people have become more wary and aiming to be better prepared for anything and everything. People don’t always like to prepare for natural disasters, so turning preparedness into fun, interactive games is a brilliant idea.
    I remember when I was in elementary school and learning about earthquake preparedness and not thinking too seriously about it. Living in California, we experience earthquakes on a frequent basis, but nothing that’s really shook up the seismographs. However, with all these different natural disasters becoming more frequent and growing in size, preparedness seems to be of the utmost of importance, and needs to be taken more seriously.
    What would be a good, fun, interactive game that can make people in Southern California more prepared and aware for earthquakes?

    What a great idea! People would be more willing to participate if it’s fun even if their life may depend on it. For example, I have to take many (boring) safety training modules at work yearly. This year, they started using an interactive game with a map that made people “look for treasures.” It made the training fun and interesting, much more than reading through boring scenarios and picking A or B. Are there any Disaster Ready games already in place available to the general public?

    It would be helpful for low income families to be able to have more access and rescoureces to be prepared. I understand what it is to have not have much money and be in a tough spot. What are ways that coastal cities can be prepared for disaster?

    As Team Building goes, an even more difficult leadership skill is keeping the team together. I prefer to think of a Go Bag as very paradoxical because if you look of the home as a central depot of supplies or as a “base camp”, it takes huge catastrophic events to deprive a body of that base camp such as an avalanche which is typical. To use a metaphor from my mountaineering experience, it is oftentimes better to “go alpine style as compared to the base camp style”. This is very dependent on the goal, but within a catastrophe, there may be an informational vacuum in order to make solid decisions. It is those atypical catastrophes which matter with greater priority as survival is now a reasonable competitive circumstance. Escape can be a good decision if you know where you want to go to.

    @Barreto, great point! It is important for people of all ages to be involved in emergency preparedness planning. CDC’s Ready Wrigley application and activity books are some good resources to help get kids involved in emergency preparedness. Checkout these resources at http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/readywrigley/

    Great post! I was just describing gamification as a concept to a co-hort last night but had never considered applying it to our work in disaster preparedness until this simple but clear article. Thank you for sharing your journey and the reflections from your travel.

    Games as learning tools has always been an interesting concept to me. It provides hands-on experience and maintains interest. Having been from a tropical country that had seen its fair share of hurricanes, it was always a bit odd that a lot of people where I live now don’t understand the repercussions of unpreparedness when faced with serious disaster. An out of sight, out of mind mentality, so to speak. I think going a little more in-depth with the different sorts of methods and games people use would improve the article, but overall I think it’s a good message.

    What is interesting about this blog is that the middle part of the country feels that they are more prepared for disasters because they have some kind of knowledge about how to handle the situation and they have a stockpile of emergency essentials such as tools or food.

    This relates to something in my life because living in Southern California, the most common natural disaster I’ve experienced is an earthquake. My family could benefit from having a stockpile of necessities such as food, tools, blankets, etc. As well as, having the knowledge about what to do as a safety plan.

    The changes or adjustments I can make from the knowledge gained in this blog are sharing this information with my family so that they too can gain this knowledge so that everyone knows what they can do not just for earthquakes but in any disaster.

    Great post. It’s true that most of us are not prepared and I don’t believe it is entirely our country’s fault. Much like you said, I would rather spend time with my friends/family or even watching TV than to actively prepare for an emergency situation that may or may not come. This is something that I should change and jump on right away. If anything, the recent emergency situations that a few countries have been thrown into the past few days should reinforce this article. We should be prepared, not only with food and water, but also a plan; where to go and what to do if an emergency situation were to occur.

    I find this blog interesting because they’re changing the way they’re informing people on how to react towards disasters. Usually, when it comes to teaching these types of drills they are usually boring and repetitive. So when they decided to make teaching fun and more creative, the message that they are trying to send to people are kept in their minds and actually helps them become more prepared when an earthquake occurs..
    This blog can relate to something in my life as well as to everyone else because in every building that we work in or goes to, we are always told to prepare for natural disasters. And usually, when they’re helping us prepare they give us pamphlets to read off of and its not really that helpful. I learn more when I see it being performed and interactively doing the preparation on hand.
    The changes I would make, if these types of activities are not given to me is to make my own type of activity to make me remember the steps of preparing for a disaster.

    I think this would be a great way for people to learn and get experience without having to deal with the real thing. I think this will also allow children to learn at an early age since kids in this century are all about technology so, it’ll be both fun and educational! Being born and raised in Southern California, natural disasters do not happen very often, so I believe that plays a huge part in not being prepared (me included). For people who do not experience extreme disasters often, what do you think would be the most effective way to spark their interest to try out the game?

    What I find most interesting is that everyone has different disaster preparedness awareness depending on their location. This is highly relate-able for me because I live in California where earthquakes are a common occurrence. Some changes I would make are better educating myself on the proper set of actions to take when dealing with natural disasters.

    This blog is interesting because it informs readers on how they can better prepare themselves in case a natural disaster were to happen. Not a lot of people are aware of how important it is to have an emergency kit because they don’t think anything will happen. I can relate to this blog because there was an incident when my parents forgot to pay the water bill so our water supply was shut off. Luckily, we had enough water bottles in the house to supply us for at least the next day when our water was going to turn back on. Now that I’ve read this information, I’ve become more aware at the fact that I should start a healthy emergency kit. I live in a earthquake prone area, so I feel like am better off safe than sorry. It is important for me to keep nutritious snacks that will give me energy when I need it and to avoid salty foods so that I don’t get thirsty faster.

    It is important that society as a whole is prepared when a disaster strikes. Some people think that it won’t happen to them, whereas others entertain the opposite extreme and have a bunker loaded with supplies. Where I live, in Virginia, I feel as though we are very unprepared for almost every type of disaster imaginable. If there is a threat of snow, schools and workplaces shut down for days. Flooding pretty much blocks off areas and they become completely inaccessible. I agree with your thoughts of making education fun!
    As a nurse, I am extremely concerned with education while my patients are in the hospital and the discharge teaching I provide when they head home. Constantly spouting facts and statistics at people does not keep their attention and they are less likely to remember or understand what I have said. If we could find a way to make it fun, people would be much more engaged and willing to learn. That being said, I think games would be an excellent way to teach people. Learning how to be disaster prepared is imperative. Games would be an excellent way to make this happen. I look forward to seeing how your research in interventions help people to be more prepared when the worst happens!

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