Preparedness & Recovery

Gamification: Developing an Audience for Emergency Management Training

Gamification could make preparedness much more interesting to the public.

by Corey Fisher / September 29, 2017

One of the hats emergency managers wear is community outreach. They must share research and best practices, but also create long-term behavior change. Today, outreach revolves mostly around event booths, mailers, pamphlets, booklets and presentations. Emergency managers show up at fairs and farmers markets, hold town hall meetings, or speak at schools or religious centers. While these methods are critical to information sharing, gamification can bring the audience to the emergency manager and outreach to a new level.

Gamification adds game-like elements to non-game situations to promote action and behavior change. It can come in multiple forms. There is regular gamification, adding story elements, badges, and scores where they would not normally be. Think online code schools or brain trainers. These boost activity by challenging the students in their own space and making learning more fun. The draw is either a personal challenge or the interest of completing a story.

Another option to add game-like elements is social gaming. Social game elements are things like leaderboards, head-to-head challenges and team contests. These bring friends and family into the game, adding interest and allowing people to justify game playing as family time. Exercise apps are a common user of social gaming elements. A 2015 presentation at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Learning and Scale found that adding social game elements increased user return rates by 50 percent and test scores by about 40 percent. Social games also have the effect of participants doing outreach themselves. The user can promote the product to their friends and family so they have more people to interact with.

Exercises have a feeling of win/lose and thematic elements. The stories build participant interest and the result is a change or bolstering in the way participants act. Games are even a class of exercise, with teams working against each other. The question is what other elements of games can be tailored to the needs of emergency managers?

Games in the workplace

There is a trove of game elements to take advantage of, and managers need only look at business for ideas. Gamification is not a new thing in the business environment. Any business that motivates employees with the promise of prizes to top workers is using game elements to boost motivation.

Over the past 10 years, large companies have used games to inspire employees to adopt healthier habits. It is hard to find a company without a health challenge or a Biggest Loser fitness group in some form or another. Some groups offer regional and national contests as outreach through bike commute and green living challenges. Bragging rights are all it takes to pit company against company and the only tools needed are a website and messaging campaign.

 The events are popular since they build staff comradery and promote long-term habit changing by building a support network. These activities are also good for the organization since healthier employees have lower absenteeism and health insurance costs. More biking also helps post disaster resilience if roads are impassable to cars but navigable by bike. This does not mean that gamification ends at the walls of the workplace though.

Even conferences are using game elements to increase participation. Special phone apps with point systems and scoreboards track attendee contribution. Clicks, pics, posts and shares all increase a player’s score, but also increase the value an organizer can show sponsors. Prizes give a sense of winning even while the game steers user actions. Instead of visiting booths, emergency managers want people to build a family disaster plan and emergency kit. The principles remain the same.

Individual preparedness is the most difficult task for emergency managers. People must voluntarily change a habit on their own time. This is where social gaming can make a difference. Simply building a leader board with names and kit items allows participants to see where they compare with their colleagues. This alone is enough to encourage greater participation. Forming teams only increases the value since each person has teammates to encourage them and hold them accountable. Social gaming is great for assembling the tools, but what about knowledge?

To implement:

•    Group emergency supplies with like items
•    Identify preparedness levels such as number of days’ worth of supplies
•    Create point values for each item, group and level
•    Build a leaderboard

FEMA has Web courses from Incident Command System to livestock. They are so sprawling that few emergency managers lack a mountain of certificates. Most of the options are fully self-contained. Other than the Professional Development Series, few have clear development paths.

Users have no reason to browse trainings. There is also no reason for the public to view this information. Even when FEMA designed Protecting Your Home or Small Business from Disaster and Community Preparedness: Implementing Simple Activities for Everyone with them in mind. This situation is ideal for gamification.

Apps building off game elements drive users to content and build on their past learning. Instead of a single story, students get chapters that build off each other. Progressive design is not foreign to FEMA. Its own courses on exercise design talk about it, but the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) independent study does not reflect that mindset. Online code schools package programming language courses into thematic stories, each building on the last. Students want to complete sections of otherwise dry material to finish the story. EMI could offer a similar solution for e-learning and make it interesting to the public. This would be much more attractive than the usual death by PowerPoint that much of the FEMA course load currently suffers from.

To implement:

•    Group similar trainings
•    Identify development levels
•    Create badges/achievements for each group or level
•    Build a user profile page

Emergency managers already do some gamification with kid-oriented outreach materials. Picture searches, crosswords, or coloring books all convey knowledge without being boring. Online materials, like FEMA’s Disaster Master, take it a step further. Once a person fills a printed puzzle in, they will likely throw it out. Electronic games can contain multiple levels and retain attention longer. It is important to coordinate print and online games to drive users to content and reinforce lessons.
Getting some exercise

Learning is not the only reason to play games. Games bring people together and show off capabilities. The Disaster Relief Trials help spread the word about how to move resources around after a disaster. Non-reinforced masonry and other high-risk construction elements create road hazards following earthquakes. Impassable roads create challenges for the movement of supplies to the impacted population. The solution? The humble cargo bike.

Since 2012, the Disaster Relief Trials have challenged participants to haul odd sizes and weights of emergency supplies through a disaster obstacle course. Riders swerve around debris, plow through water hazards, and lug their bikes over walls and hedges to provide supplies to victims and responders. Riders cannot even use cellphones or electric assist bikes unless they can charge batteries off the grid.

The event gives results that emergency managers strive for. It tests resource movement capabilities and builds a volunteer pool of riders to enact it. Visitors learn preparation from preparedness fair by the track. This happens while the bike event draws in crowds. Though the event is only a few years old, it offers a glimpse at the possibilities of turning exercises into events. Local EOCs and response agencies test their own downtime procedures while allowing vendors to display their supplies by using them as mock disaster supplies. Earthquakes are not the only scenario. Similar events could be staged for tornadoes, landslides or other events creating severe disturbances to transportation corridors.

Pitting industry and first response personnel against each other in friendly competition is nothing new. Lumberjack games, firefighter challenges and lineman rodeos have been going on for decades. These are fun for participants and raise money for burn centers or children’s hospitals. They also increase interest in certain jobs. This formula is also useful to promote volunteer organizations and drive volunteer development.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Olympics are a perfect example of blending exercise and sporting event. CERTs from across states, regions or even the United States compete. Individual events challenge teams on the skills they learn as volunteers. Any major sporting event demonstrates team skills. The only difference is that the skills on display at the CERT Olympics save lives.

To implement:

•    Find a capability requiring volunteers to perform a challenging task/s
•    Invite initial participants and create outreach campaign for more
•    Coordinate with partner agencies
•    Find a public venue
•    Invite media, vendors, agencies and volunteer groups with displays
•    Invite the public

A word of warning
Games can lead to remembering material and are good for an initial boost of interest. That does not let emergency managers off the hook. Long-term use requires consumers to continue enjoying the game. Giving users new challenges or goals keeps them interested and makes sure that habits are changed.

Gamification also is not a solution in every case. While most studies reviewed in 2014 showed positive results, there were some that showed no benefit. Game elements may have little to no effect on user habits depending on their depth and the audience. For some, competition will drive participation, and for others individual challenge is more important. Balancing elements to interest participants is critical to sustaining a strong program. The most important factor of gamification is making whatever you are doing fun for those who participate. So think creatively, push the boundaries, and game on.

Corey Fisher, is technology advisor for Business Continuity and Emergency Management Operations.