In the aftermath of the 2015 The New Yorker article “The Really Big One,” which predicted that an earthquake will destroy most of the Pacific Northwest in the upcoming years, panic struck the region. 

Only after reading about the possibility of such a large earthquake did many people, like UW Bothell senior Amber Fusaro, realize they had no idea how they would respond if a disaster hit.

Fusaro, along with fellow seniors Joni Roe, Jeremiah Fansler, and Anna Nguyen, took on the challenge of addressing this lack of knowledge about disaster preparedness through the creation of a game, “Plan-It: Disaster.” 

“Plan-It: Disaster” is a first-person video game aimed at teaching its players what items to take in the case of an emergency. In the game, the player wakes up in an apartment during an earthquake and must sort through their belongings as quickly and efficiently as possible to see what they will take with them when they leave the apartment.

The items range from key survival items, such as flashlights and pocket knives, to sentimental pieces like photo albums. Each item is ranked green, yellow, or red based on how necessary it is for survival.

“Players have to go through their entire apartment searching for items they value,” Fansler said. “It’s a way for them to grade themselves as they have to leave the apartment before the time runs out.” 

At the end of the game, the items are scored based on input from experts to see how well the player packed their survival kit.

Interactive Media Design

“Plan-It: Disaster” was created as a capstone project for the undergraduate students’ interactive media design (IMD) major.

UW Bothell created the IMD major in the fall of 2013, with its first cohort graduating in 2015. The major, a partnership between the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences and School of STEM, is designed to meld together the humanities and the sciences with a guiding focus on technology.

“I’ve always felt that this major was kind of the combination of technology, art, and people,” Nguyen said. “I’ve always been drawn to the fact that technology, even though it may seem like it, is not one of the frontrunners or primary things about the major, it’s what you can do for the people, the issues, the problems, and using technology as the enabler for that.”

Over the course of the two-year curriculum, IMD students work with a variety of media, from game design to web design, to gain hands-on experience and develop creative solutions for complex problems, according to the university’s website.

The students behind “Plan-It: Disaster” have done just that by using the game format to educate the public on disaster preparedness in an educational and entertaining way.

“I think the motivating qualities that you see through playing a game, we felt that it was the best way to use as a teaching tool,” said Fusaro, head of game design and user experience for “Plan-It: Disaster.” “We wanted to encourage people to try again and better their score, and in effect, improve upon their real world knowledge.”

Creating the game

Before creating their final product, the team went through several rounds of studies and testing. They began with cultural probes studies, ambiguous surveys to see what people think about survival and disaster, and a Google survey to see what people have in survival kits — if they have one. 

Next, they moved on to experiential prototypes with physical kits to see what items people think are most important.

Throughout this process, the students met with key experts in the emergency field to learn about disaster preparedness. Darren Branum, UW Bothell’s Emergency Preparedness manager, was one of the experts the students consulted with.

“The disaster simulation game that the IMD students are working on is a great platform to help educate students on what they need to be prepared in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake,” Branum said. “It gives a realistic look at the emergency preparedness items, actions that someone could be faced with during an incident.”

Having experts’ viewpoints proved to be very useful for the students’ game creation.

“I think that was really interesting for us to see another perspective on sentimental items, because we learned from experts that even though they might not seem key, they are really important to have in terms of PTSD and coping in stressful situations,” Nguyen said. “It’s something that people oftentimes overlook but I would say it’s almost equally as important. It’s not as black and white as we originally thought.”

After the initial surveys, the team developed a paper prototype: a board game version of the final product to observe how people interacted and played the game.

“We were constantly trying to learn as much as possible about our players,” Nguyen said. “We had people that were super familiar and people that knew nothing and we had to try to find that middle balance to try to get it more user friendly.”

Learning about the game’s audience played a key role in the development process.

“Development-wise there were a lot of issues,” Fansler said. “There weren’t very many people we could lean back on, so if we had any questions, it was all self-taught and self-learning: trial and error, learning on the job.”

The future

The team said they gained both professional and personal skills through creating a successful game and dedicating themselves to the project for a year.

“I think for me personally, as the project manager, it was interesting because I took on a few more roles that I expected,” Roe said. “I got to see how many different things a project manager can really do.”

In terms of the game, the team has big dreams for its future.

One idea is to work with virtual reality to drive home the game’s immersive and real-world experience. The team has also discussed specializing the game to other disasters besides earthquakes and having the game be available on government websites or as part of a survival kit.

“We’ve talked about having it be this type of experience where you could put in your zip code and say you live in a wildfire zone or an earthquake zone, it would load up a scenario, like the one we’ve done for Seattle, to walk you through what you need to do in each of those situations,” Fusaro said.

Regardless of where the future of the game is headed, its main purpose will always be helping others.

Reach writer Medha Raman at Twitter: @medharaman_