Hackers Develop Disaster Response Video Games

Can you survive an earthquake? How about a virtual one?

By Matthew Halverson July 22, 2011 Published in the August 2011 issue of Seattle Met

FEAR NOT THE HACK. Fear the hacker who would use it for evil.

Last March, Willow Brugh and Annie Dennisdóttir Wright watched the reports coming out of earthquake-crippled northern Japan with mouths agape: thousands dead, billions of dollars in damage, a nuclear reactor on the verge of meltdown. They fired tweets back and forth from their homes in Seattle, simultaneously horrified and inspired to act. Natural disasters are unavoidable, they knew, but maybe they could improve the way citizens and first responders deal with the devastation. Maybe they could design a video game.

Don’t laugh. Brugh, cofounder of the international “hacktivist” nonprofit Geeks Without Bounds, and Wright, an editor at the gaming website Gameranx, are as serious as a 6.7 aftershock. They know that games can upload skills—in this case the critical-thinking-under-duress variety—to your subconscious without you even realizing what’s happened. “Only 10 to 20 percent of people who play educational games play them for the purpose they’re intended,” Brugh says. “If you build a game meant to teach math and it’s good, most people won’t even consciously notice that they’re learning math.” In other words, Brugh and Wright aren’t interested in cooking up disaster porn for your Xbox. They want to jack you into a new way of looking at survival—with the help of a couple dozen geeks willing to rain down fire on a rubble-strewn digital world.

For five weeks in June and July, the pair brought together teams of developers—online and in person—from as far away as Boston and Australia for GameSave, the first in a series of game-design competitions. After the coders got a lesson from subject matter experts on common obstacles to disaster response, their instructions were simple: Design a game that “addresses disaster mitigation.” If you’re scratching your head over those vague marching orders, that’s okay, because A) you’re probably not a developer, and B) Brugh and Wright wanted to free up entrants to expand the virtual playing field beyond real-life scenarios. Structure would only compromise creativity. “It doesn’t matter to us whether the game is about resource distribution after a megaquake or saving unicorns from the ravages of a glitter storm,” Wright says.

The winning concept—after only five weeks of work, that’s all anyone could hope to have—was announced July 15. Beyond that Brugh and Wright hope to hook up the winners with studios interested in developing their game for consumers, and they plan to hold more GameSave events in the future. Design parameters may get more specific, but the contest will never lose its by-any-means-necessary approach to problem solving because it’s hardwired into the hacker mentality that the pair is trying to cultivate. And by “hacker,” they’re not talking about the kind of anonymous, website-attacking anarchists that led recent high-profile attacks against Sony and the CIA. They’re talking about people who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. “Everybody should aspire to be a hacker,” Brugh says. “Hackers tinker with a system that other people take as a given. Whether or not you’ve destroyed the system that you’re messing with is a matter of perspective. But you have to tinker every step of the way.”

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