January 1, 2008 Computer scientists and public health professionals are working together to prepare workers to respond to emergencies. The video game they designed allows people to learn what to do in the event of an actual emergency. This game supplements classroom and live training exercises involving hundreds of people.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone -- kids and adults alike -- who hasn't played at least one video game. They're a multi-million dollar industry. But video games aren't just for entertainment anymore. Public health officials say gaming is vital when it comes to preparing for national disasters.
The United States has a long way to go, for preparing for disaster." Colleen Monahan, DC, MPH, Ph.D., Public Health Expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Ivanhoe.
Public health workers and volunteers are vital in the face of a disaster, but Colleen Monahan says training them for massive life-threatening events takes a lot of time. Take Chicago, for example. "If they had an anthrax dispersion, they would have to organize 55 dispensing centers and provide medication to 3 million people in 48 hours," said Dr. Monahan.
Monahan and her team have found that they can train people in less time using a video game. In their "pod" game, users pick a role and have to make quick decisions as they interact with challenging people. The game even tracks who plays.
"We can give the cities that are using the game data that tells them what percentage of the workforce is prepared," Dr. Monahan said.
But video games are a pricey venture. So the team is now working disaster-planning games into already-existing virtual worlds, like "second life" to give them more options.
But Kevin Harvey, one of the game's creators, expects the virtual world training component to evolve. "We could imagine a day where we would have the public also come in and actually experience what it's like in a virtual world before they actually get there," said Harvey.
And that kind of preparation is the first step toward a good defense if and when disaster strikes.
SCREENSAVERS CAN HELP FROM HOME: Small pox, cancer, and anthrax are just a few of the diseases that are being studied through distributed computing. Volunteers download a small program that activates when their computer is in screensaver mode. The software connects to a research center and gets assigned a small part of a large computation, such as simulating the interactions of a large variety of molecules to find some that could combine to form a cure.