Student Feature

PLAN-IT: Disaster – Interactive Media Design Students Create Earthquake Preparedness Game

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A major earthquake hits where you are. What do you do? What do you grab when it’s time to get moving? Inspired in part by The New Yorker article, “The Really Big One”, a group of students in the Interactive Media Design major are designing a game to help people answer these questions.

The Interactive Media Design (IMD) major is jointly run by the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences and the School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. IMD gives students hands-on experience in human-centered design, artistic technique, and process management. The capstone project for students graduating with a degree in Interactive Media Design involves an intensive, collaborative, year-long project.

Plan-It Disaster is the capstone project developed by:


(pictured left to right)
Joni Roe (Project Manager)
Amber Fusaro (Environmental & Visual Designer)
Jeremiah Fansler (Game Mechanics & Level Designer)
Anna Nguyen (Marketing/User Research)

“We wanted to make a product that would be beneficial to others,” says Anna Nguyen. Amber Fusaro first suggested creating an interactive product dealing with emergency preparedness, having read The New Yorker article. Discussing the article with her family and friends, she realized that she didn’t know what she would do in the event of a major earthquake. This topic resonated with the other members of the group, especially since they live on the West Coast. They decided that they wanted to produce a resource to get people thinking and learning about earthquake preparedness in a way that would be fun.

“This area hasn’t had an earthquake since 2002. A lot of resources and recommendations have changed since then. People only think about these things when they have happened recently. For that reason, we thought we would do a simulation,” says Joni Roe.

When asked why they chose the medium of gaming to address these serious issues, Nguyen said, “We considered other options, such as an app. But we wanted to create a more immersive experience. There’s a lot of learning that comes from play. That’s the goal of this game, to have people play it, live it, experience it, feel it, in order to get people to really engage with the idea of preparing to face a natural disaster.”

With guidance from IAS faculty member Tyler Fox, the Plan-It Disaster team began their research for the project with surveys to see what people knew about earthquake response and how prepared people felt. They found that only 11.3% of people surveyed felt prepared for a large-scale natural disaster, while 45.2% felt that it was necessary to be prepared.

The Plan-It Disaster team then developed a set of cultural probes – questions and representations of items that allow participants to make associations between perceived needs and natural disasters, and to prioritize those needs. At this stage, they did not focus on the earthquake scenario, because they did not want to guide responses. The data they collected show that the words Katrina, sad, Sandy, help, terrible, hurricane, and earthquake came most often to people's minds.

This research informed their initial experiential prototype (a real-life situation that creates the experience the designers want to simulate in the game).  The team presented safety preparedness and miscellaneous other items for participants to choose from, and gave them an action prompt: “An earthquake just occurred: what items will you grab?”

Objects from the experitntial prototype ranked by participant

The experiential prototype confirmed the emotional impact of thinking about natural disasters on participants. With this insight, they decided that the game challenge would be for participants to make tough choices between items they deem life-saving and those they valued on an emotional or personal level—all while under the pressure of time.

As of this writing, the Plan-It Disaster simulation game has been tested with user groups as both a paper prototype and as a low resolution computer prototype. Users take the simulation seriously, demonstrate a self-induced sense of urgency in play, and also enjoy the experience. The final product will be a realistic 3D model so that users can relate to the setting and picture themselves in the environment.

user testing
User testing session.

Group members are documenting their work on a project blog that contains most of the research documents, project updates, marketing, and key design developments. By project end, the group will also have a product webpage to showcase this portfolio.

screenshot from Plan-It Disaster game
Screenshot from Plan-It Disaster

Darren Branum, the UW Bothell Emergency Preparedness Manager is one of the expert advisors that the Plan-It Disaster team has consulted. “The disaster simulation game that the IMD students are working on is great platform to help educate people. It gives a realistic look at the emergency preparedness items, actions that someone could be faced with during an incident. It also provides an inside look at your own needs and is a great self-assessment tool,” Branum says.