Digital Relief: An Interview with GameSave

Jorge Albor interviews GameSave, the sponsors of a competition to develop disaster response games.

Beginning June 10th, impromptu teams of game designers, programmers, artists, humanitarian aid experts, philanthropists, and anyone with a passion for changing the world will participate in GameSave, a “hack-a-thon” like competition to develop disaster response games. Over five weeks, small collections of thinkers and do-gooders will brainstorm, design, and produce games that might save lives. With a 48-hour jam session in Seattle, Washington, a final public reception in San Francisco, and potential GameSave events in the future, creators Annie Wright and Willow Brugh aim to make entertainment and humanitarian aid long-term partners. The two GameSave founders graciously took some time with me to discuss the event and the role that games can play in mitigating the impact of disaster,

PopMatters: Can you explain how the idea for GameSave came about?

Annie Wright: Well, basically it was a comment thread on a Gamer Melodico article. I shared it via Google Reader. I believe it was actually about PAX East coverage.

Willow Brugh: It turned into this fantastic conversation, and going back to face to face time, Annie and I wanted to sit down to talk about it.

AW: But we sort of got off-topic a bit with discussion of Dr. Jane McGonigal's ideas and how we'd like to implement them with regard to a specific problem, and this was literally a day or two after the Japan quake.

WB: It was just a perfect storm -- to use a really awful pun.

PM: Considering the amount of humanitarian issues, what made you settle on disaster relief for GameSave?

WB: There are a wide variety of "games for good," but this one was the most in need of addressing given my context. We hope to expand GameSave to start addressing disaster preparedness, recovery, etc., but this round is for Response. I can explain a thing called Crisis Mapping pretty easily as an example of how these things happen. So, earthquake or tornado or what have you , , ,

AW: Or both.

WN: A person in the midst of it can send texts to shortcodes or post to twitter with an appropriate hashtag about what they see and where they are: “I'm at x corner and I see a gas station that's open" or "There's someone buried under Big Church." All of that information gets dumped into a database, which is then parsed by volunteers. It has to be translated, categorized, geolocated, and verified. Then the first responders can see what concentrated needs exist so they can be more effective.

AW: It’s actually one of the fastest ways to get info out there; it’s the parsing that’s the bottleneck.

WB: Yeah, the parsing is difficult to teach and exhausting to participants. But if it's a game that people play anyway, so they already understand the interface, then when disaster strikes, it's "hey, can everyone just jump on and play a few rounds?" That’s one example. There are also things like how Walmart knows where all of its inventory is at all times -- knowing the resources and the needs to match those up.

PM: Crowdsourced information parsing then, among other things?

WB: Yes, but we call it playsourcing.

AW: Because words like "crowdsourcing" and "gamification" *shudder* already are starting to have specific connotations.

WB: So at a very basic level, it consolidates information, next step up, it raises awareness, and maybe even saves some lives. If it gets to be as intricate and involved as it could be . . . you can train the responders themselves in a stress-free way.

AW: Well, not entirely stress-free.

WB: But pleasantly stressful . . . the way good games are: stress that is accomplishment.

PM: So presuming the event is a huge success, do you envision GameSave as a yearly event?

AW: Well, there is a cycle with emergency management. This round is for Response.

WB: Response is just after the fact Recovery and refers to the more long-term things: rebuilding, filing, support, etc. Preparedness means those two phases go better and are less necessary, and Mitigation involves building in ways that make the destruction less awful.

AW: Things like making sure buildings are retrofitted and road structures are reinforced for preparedness. We're actually seeing a scramble to try to reinforce the Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle right now as we speak, but given the way we tend to prepare for these things, meaning: not at all, "response" is the most pressing thing.

PM: Sounds like development work in some ways.

WB: Yeah, emergency management is part of development in an integral way.

AW: And of course, these phases are not mutually exclusive because it is ridiculous to think that nature just falls in line with any structure we create to address problems.

WB: Disaster and response are such a part of all life that it becomes something we don't think about. It has to be explicit, though, for just those reasons.

AW: That is one of the functions of gameplay.

PM: Considering the serious subject matter and the potentially new concepts, how has the gaming and game development community responded to GameSave? Have any of these responses surprised you?

AW: Well, we've gotten an overwhelmingly positive response so far. I know that there is some hesitance from both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, there are the Eberts who regard games as a fundamentally inferior medium. I know he's recanted that statement, but I use it to illustrate a mindset that a lot of people still have. But then also, there are the people already deeply in gamer culture who don't want anyone messing with their stuff.

I think there's room for this in all of these spaces. We want to make it clear that we're not trying to take all gaming and make it into some kind of middle school science class. Sometimes we do just need entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you take a look at something like Eve Online, people who have been into that game for a while have managed to gain this incredibly unique logistics/planning skillset, even though it's about the far reaches of outer space. People who are, for lack of a better phrase, good at Eve, are used to using their brains in this specific way that is not inherently natural to everyone and would potentially take a lot longer to learn without having played such a game.

PM: Absolutely. I'm a bit curious about the response from the humanitarian community as well. As I understand them, relief and aid work are rife with problems and inefficiencies. Have you received any criticisms from the non-gaming communities?

WB: As far as the humanitarian community, most are incredibly excited about it. Those who aren't tend to also be wary of things like OpenGov and the like.

AW: I mean, we don't presume to be experts or even anything more than vaguely literate with regard to disaster mitigation, so the ways in which we've engaged with humanitarian communities has largely been "tell us what we need to accomplish." We've learned a lot already, but we're inclined to have this aspect of the competition guided by the people who know what it needs to address, because otherwise it wouldn't be all that useful. If the goal is to have something that emergency personnel can use to train volunteers or educate the populace, the most important thing is to have as much input from them as possible.

WB: Yes. Being honest and open and asking for help has been great. People have been wonderful.

AW: We're pretty overwhelmed at the amount of advice and help we've gotten from some amazing people.

PM: So imagining you have your perfect design team on hand, what would your ideal GameSave game look like?

AW: This is a tough one, and it's one we've gotten a lot. See, it really is up to the teams themselves.

WB: Yeah. It is up to the teams. We are good at connecting, facilitating, and giving publicity. We’re just providing space and incentives and tools so they can shine where they are amazing. Mostly just “here’s what’s needed” and getting out of the way.

AW: Initially, I was imagining some kind of Oregon Trail scenario. But even something that is thematically unrelated but still provides the kind of skill set teaching that people need will work. The goal is to A) provide the training and requisite skills but B) also actually be FUN and not just some, "Well, I guess this is more fun than a classroom . . . sort of." I mean, that's better than nothing, but at this point, we've all had to sit through some kind of half-arsed "gamified" training scenario that is only partially effective and poorly made.

PM: Do you know how many teams you expect to participate?

AW: Not a clue! We've got a handful of complete teams so far and at least as many individuals who will be matched up once registration is closed, but the official launch date isn't until the 10th of June. But a problem that we’d really not mind having is trying to provide enough snacks because there are too many participants at the build. Personally, I’d consider that more of a blessing in disguise because the more brains we have tackling this problem, the most robust the thought process involved.

And we definitely encourage people to join, even if they think they're not technically savvy enough but have some interest. You never know what will happen when people start bouncing ideas off one another.

You can find more information GameSave at their homepage. Registration is open until June 10th and everyone, regardless of location, is invited to participate.

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