FEMA's planned disaster game needs pain and death

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking for ideas for an online 'Disaster Hero' game. John Breeden II, director of Government Computer News' product lab and an avid gamer, says kids and others will learn more if the game isn't sugarcoated.

Earthquakes, fires, floods and terrorist attacks aren’t typically the subjects of computer games. Well, that last one has shown up quite a few times, actually, but the others are rare. And almost no games are sponsored by the federal government.

“Disaster Hero” is intended to be different, both in its sponsorship and in what its makers want to accomplish. The game is being created to run completely online and is designed to help children and families prepare for, and survive, disasters of all types.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is sponsoring the effort, and veteran game creator Legacy Interactive is developing it. The company created the critically acclaimed “Law and Order” games, where players can take on the roles of the famous TV prosecutors and detectives. So there’s little doubt that “Disaster Hero” has potential.

Normally these free, Web-based titles are, well, boring. But Legacy Interactive has made some pretty good games besides “Law and Order,” many of them aimed at children. “Pet Pals, Animal Doctor” is particularly good. If the game follows that tradition, it could really catch on.

FEMA is looking for suggestions for the game’s development. So if you’ve got an idea, submit it to suggestions@disasterhero.com.

Here’s mine: Don’t sugarcoat the title. Disasters are serious business; that’s why they’re called disasters. I’m not saying there should be flying body parts or people dying right and left (I get that in most of the games I play now), but players in Disaster Hero should be forced to make real choices and suffer real consequences.

If you aren’t adequately prepared, your characters should die. That’s what would happen in real life, and players -- whether kids or adults -- should see that there are real dangers out there. Otherwise, why make the game? The screen can simply fade to black and say that you didn’t make it, and then offer to re-start from a point where you can try again.

“Oregon Trail” is probably one of the best known and successful educational games of all time, and its mortality rate for players was well over 50 percent. People and kids learn better by doing than by being told something. And dying in a game might just prevent a real fatality when it counts. Plus, if it’s actually cool, more people will play, and the game will have a bigger impact.

The fact that the game is being made in conjunction with The American College of Emergency Physicians is a good sign that the project is being taken seriously. Dr. Angela Gardner, ACEP president said, “this project to develop an educational program for children using a game platform will be a unique approach to teaching kids to have an active role in home disaster planning.”

A FEMA statement added that, “despite imminent threats and increased media attention, Americans today are no better prepared for a natural disaster or terrorist attack than they were in 2003.”

Perhaps “Disaster Hero” can help.

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