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Disaster: A Serious Game

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Stills from "Inside the Haiti Earthquake"

Immediately after the earthquake in Haiti, I was a journalist with the goal of finding a story on a strict deadline but I was surprised at myself. I made choices so unlike me. I couldn't meet my deadlines. I didn't want to go into Port-au-Prince. I was overwhelmed. The story was the same everywhere -- death and destruction.

When I attempted to assist as an aid worker, I was frustrated at my lack of ability to help directly. I distributed baby formula, only to find out the people I was trying to help mixed it with tainted water; babies were dying. Everywhere I turned I was confused; the UN and Peacekeepers seemed to be villains and journalists only interested in themselves.

But it was when I lost my children in a collapsed home, that the reality of the situation sunk in. Battling other Haitians at gates guarded by military personal, only to be told there was no work for me, no food to be had, made me realize my only choice was to help myself. This was the game changer.

I am playing the serious game -- a first-person simulator created by Inside Disaster called, Inside the Haitian Earthquake. Be warned many of the images are brutal. The footage of dead bodies being scooped up by bulldozers was particularly haunting.

The strength of this interactive platform is the emotions it evokes. The choices often feel like a no win situation and text messages of an urgent nature redirected me throughout the "game" further clouding my goals.

For me the role of "the survivor" hit home as a sense of hopelessness and frustration left me doubting who to trust and where to turn. Lesson learned: Helping yourself is the hardest thing to do in a disaster situation.

I interviewed Katie McKenna of Inside Disaster about Inside the Haiti Earthquake

Where did the concept for an interactive experience of the earthquake in Haiti come from?

The role playing simulation is one part of the Inside Disaster multi-platform documentary project. Inside Disaster is a three-part documentary series about the Red Cross response in Haiti. From the footage and themes that emerged from our documentary and web footage from Haiti, we created an interactive website about Haiti and humanitarian work, and this first-person role-playing simulation.

The whole Inside Disaster project began when the documentary director and producer, Nadine Pequeneza, approached the international Red Cross with the idea of following their team through their next major disaster response operation. After they agreed, the documentary and web team were "on hold" for months while we waited for the next natural disaster to happen, and the Red Cross to be called in.

Even though at that time we didn't know where the documentary would be filmed, we already created a loose framework for what we called the "interactive experience." We knew that wherever the documentary team ended up, they would come back with incredible stories of survivors, aid workers, and inevitably, journalists. So we had our basic idea - that by experiencing a natural disaster through these three perspectives, the user would deepen their understanding of the conflicts, challenges and contradictions of disaster relief.

Because of this, we had a loose plan in place even before we knew that our focus would be in Haiti.

Would you call this a "game" or "role playing?"

We call it an "interactive experience" or a "role-playing simulation." It's emphatically not a game, first because there are no points, and no "winning" or "losing" in the stories we've created; there are only decisions and consequences. Our goal was to approximate how people learn in real life. The second reason we don't call this a game is that although the stories are based on a written script, the footage is documentary material from the first days after the earthquake in Haiti, of real people going through real experiences. It's certainly not a game for them, and we want the user to understand that too.

Are there other such interactive experiences out there that this was modeled upon?

Inside the Haiti Earthquake falls at the intersection between the worlds of "serious gaming," which uses games to expose users to new perspectives in complex or controversial issues, and the emerging space of interactive and web documentaries. We looked at the fantastic French web documentary, Journey to the End of Coal, before we started, and it convinced us that we would be able to do what we set out to do -- create a rich, full-screen online experience filled with video and music that would be accessible to anyone with a high-speed web connection and an up-to-date version of Flash.

How is the Red Cross involved in the project?

The Red Cross gave the documentary team permission to follow them through the Haiti response, but they were not directly involved in the Inside the Haiti Earthquake simulation. We were very happy that they've written the piece up on their Red Cross Talks blog, and have been supportive of the project since it launched.

I thought it was very interesting how the different "roles" had unique experiences and even different emotional impacts. What was the research process in creating this experience?

The complex, intersecting storylines were crafted by the project's writer and co-director, Michael Gibson, an award-winning "serious gaming" expert with a lot of experience creating first-person web-based learning simulations.

To do the research, he spent hours and hours talking to two people. First, the documentary's director, Nadine Pequeneza, about what she saw and experienced while filming the Red Cross, the thousands and thousands of "maverick aid workers" who showed up in Haiti on their own after the quake, and survivors like Marcel, Magalie, and Louken through the month after the quake, and on two return trips after that. The second essential resource was Nicolas Jolliet, the co-director, editor, and composer of Inside the Haiti Earthquake.

Nico travelled to Haiti with the crew as our Web Producer and Field Director; his mission was to go into the camps and find out how people who hadn't received any humanitarian aid were surviving. Because he's young, speaks Creole, and was traveling with two incredibly talented and cool Haitian http://www.wisegeek.com/in-journalism-what-is-a-fixer.htm, he got to go places where other media didn't, and film things - like the amazing local music you hear throughout the simulation - that were quite unique.

Nadine and Nico shared the stories they had experienced with Michael, the things they had found surprising or frustrating, and which of those had been captured on camera, and those became the basis of the script.

From the script, Nico began to create and edit the sequences of photos, video and music that make up Inside the Haiti Earthquake. And when, in August, we realized that we needed some footage that we were missing, he went back to Haiti to film some more. During that time, he also worked with local musicians to craft the musical score, and hired a very talented local English teacher, Falaune Louis Jacques, to record the narration for the survivor story.

Who is the intended audience and what are the results you are hoping to achieve from people participating in this "game?"

One of the amazing, and in some ways inspiring things about natural disasters is the degree to which people in other countries want to get involved and help out. We want to deepen people's understanding -- as donors, media consumers, and sometimes "maverick" aid workers who show up on their own -- of the complexity and difficulties of relief work in disaster situations.

This project is for anyone who's even given money to an aid organization and wanted to know why things aren't changing on the ground fast enough. It's for people who show up to help in natural disasters without training, resources, or being able to speak the local language, and can sometimes do more harm than good without intending to. It's to help people realize the complex, and sometimes contradictory roles played by the media in these situations -- that their work is essential in getting the story out, but short deadlines and shallow reporting can sometimes reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and oversimplifications of the situation. For example, we wanted to show that the Haitian people are survivors and active agents in their own recovery, not helpless victims waiting for aid workers to arrive. And that was the reality on the ground for the vast majority of Haitians after the quake.

Do you as the creators feel there are right answers or choices? I found myself often conflicted, which I think is probably a realistic emotion in crisis.

There are no right or wrong answers, just decisions and consequences. Michael Gibson deliberately created a script that uses the assumptions that many people have about aid workers, survivors and journalists in natural disasters, to surprise the user and subvert their expectations. We wanted people to learn the same way they do in real life -- through experience, making mistakes and experiencing the consequences.


Inside the Haiti Earthquake
is free and can be found here.

To learn more about Inside Disaster please visit their website, http://insidedisaster.com/haiti/.