« Thursday Topsight, March 22, 2007 | Main | The Future Feels a Little Bit Closer »

Rehearsing the Future

stopdisaster.jpgNever underestimate the power of a "do-over."

Video gamers know exactly what I'm talking about: the ability to face a challenge over and over again, in most cases with a "reset" of the environment to the initial conditions of the fight (or trap, or puzzle, etc.). With a consistent situation and setting, the player is able to experiment with different strategies. Typically, the player will find the approach that works, succeed, then move on to the next challenge; occasionally, the player will try different winning strategies in order to find the one with the best results, putting the player in a better position to meet the next obstacle.

Real life, of course, doesn't have do-overs. But one of the fascinating results of the increasing sophistication of virtual world and game environments is their ability to serve as proxies for the real world, allowing users to practice tasks and ideas in a sufficiently realistic setting that the results provide useful real life lessons. This capability is based upon virtual worlds being interactive systems, where one's actions have consequences; these consequences, in turn, require new choices. The utility of the virtual world as a rehearsal system is dependent upon the plausibility of the underlying model of reality, but even simplified systems can elicit new insights.

The classic example of this is Sim City (which I've written about at length before), but with the so-called "serious games" movement, we're seeing the overlap of gaming and rehearsal become increasingly common.

The latest example is particularly interesting to me. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction group has teamed up with the UK game design studio Playerthree to create the Flash-based "Stop Disasters" game. The goal of the game is to reduce the harmful results of catastrophic natural events -- the disaster that gets stopped isn't the event itself, but its impact on human life.

The game mechanisms are fairly straightforward. The player chooses what kind of disaster is to be faced (earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, wildfire or flood), then has a limited amount of time to prepare for the inevitable. The player can build new buildings, retrofit or demolish old ones, install appropriate defensive infrastructure (such as mangroves along tsunami-prone shorelines or firebreaks around water towers), institute preparedness training, install sirens and evacuation signs, and so forth -- all with a limited budget, and with ancillary goals that must be met for success, such as building schools and hospitals for community development, or bringing in hotels for local economic support.

Once the money is spent (or the time runs out), the preordained disaster strikes, and the player gets to see whether his or her choices were the right ones. At the easy level, there's generally enough money to protect the small map and limited population; at the harder levels, the player must make difficult choices about who and what to save. The overall complexity reminds me of the very first version of Sim City, but don't take that as a criticism: the first Sim City arguably offered the clearest demonstration of urban complexity of the four versions, in large measure because of its spartan interface and simplicity.

Stop Disasters is billed as a children's game, and it's true that the folks at Architecture for Humanity aren't going to use it for planning purposes. That's not the goal, of course. This isn't a rehearsal tool for the people who have to plan for disasters, but for the people who have to live with that planning -- and those people who will choose to help their communities during large-scale emergencies.

I suspect that there would be an audience for a more complex version of Stop Disasters, one which puts more demands on the player to accommodate citizen needs. It's a bit too easy to simply demolish old buildings rather than retrofit them in the UN/ISDR game, for example, and I would love to see more economic tools. I'd also like to see a wider array of disasters, beyond the short, sharp, shock events of quakes and storms. What would a Stop Disaster global warming scenario look like, for example -- not trying to prevent climate change, but to deal with its consequences?

If we really want to get our hands dirty, we'd need to build up Stop Disasters scenarios for the advent of molecular manufacturing, self-aware artificial intelligence, global pandemic, peak oil and asteroid strikes.

Not because such games would tell us what we should do, but because they'd help us see how our choices could play out -- and, more importantly, they'd remind us that our choices matter.


You forgot "cane toads". Oh. Wait.

As you say: SimCity v1.

Games like these are, of course, themselves subject to makeovers.

If it proves popular, more sophisticated versions will follow.

Oh, csven? You don't know the half of it:
Monster cane toad caught in Darwin

Suddenly, novels like 'Funnelweb' aren't so silly!

..then there's the fire ant, which got a foothold in Brisbane around 2001:
A more successful gaming strategy there (Texans take note!)


Endgame: Singularity is an amusing take on superpotent AI. The goal is to play an AI whose goal is to escape detection by human society until it's powerful enough to resist being shut down.

I'm liking both the molecular manufacturing one ("Stop the Grey Goo!") and the AI one, though the one that would probably be most interesting to me would be something involving genetic engineering.

And btw, I was referring to that "monster" toad. Great example of people tampering with systems they don't understand. As far as I'm concerned, there's as yet no compelling reason to believe the human race has gotten on the clue train.

It's amazing how accurate simulations, even at a low grain of resolution, change your view on things. A tangential example in a frivolous setting: lots of stathead baseball fans hate the tactics employed by their favorite teams, because those statheads have played various baseball simulation games (Strat-o-matic being the most influential) that *demonstrate* the folly of, say, trying to steal bases with a low-percentage base stealer. How much more effective, then, when this is computer-enabled (Strat-o-matic used to be played with index cards), and devoted to a serious subject like disaster preparedness.

I'm still holding out for the MMORG version of the World Game and the Dashboard for Spaceship Earth. Still, another step along that path is good.

Do you know about the spherical display from Global Imagination, Magic Planet? Saw it at the recent Building Energy 2007. The only drawback is that you can't touch the surface of the display but...

More at


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37