The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) has ongoing efforts to spread the disaster preparedness message to the state’s youth. An activity book teaches young children about safety through a storyline and activities like mazes and crossword puzzles. High schoolers can participate in the Ready Illinois High School Challenge, which encourages them to write scripts for a 30-second public service announcement that the state produces. And the college challenge seeks to engage young adults by having them produce a public service announcement to be included in IEMA’s TV campaign for preparedness. But a program to reach Illinois’ middle schoolers was missing — that is until Nov. 15 when IEMA released a video game that aims to provide a fun way for kids to learn about safety.

“We knew that we needed to do something that would be fun, but they’re too old for coloring books and activity books at that age,” said Patti Thompson, communications manager for IEMA. “So it just seemed like the video game route was something new to do, a new direction to go.”

Available at Ready.Illinois.gov, The Day the Earth Shook video game uses an earthquake scenario to demonstrate the need for a disaster supply kit as well as identify safe locations in a building during an earthquake. Thompson said the agency used an earthquake scenario in the game for two reasons: First, Illinois is at risk for an earthquake because there are two seismic zones in the southern part of the state, including the New Madrid Seismic Zone. And second, other emergencies, like fires, can happen during an earthquake, so it was a good way to combine them into one scenario.

Work on the game began about a year ago, and to develop it, IEMA partnered with the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the Center for Public Safety and Justice. IEMA told the partners which parts of preparedness to include in the game and what they wanted emphasized. The project cost about $286,000 and was funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to a statement from the agency.

The video game was demonstrated to the state’s county emergency managers at IEMA’s annual conference in September. Although it wasn’t ready to go live at the time, the emergency managers were able to play the game and get familiar with it so they would be ready to encourage people in their communities to play it.

“I’m also going to be working with the Illinois State Board of Education to get notices in their weekly newsletters that they send out to schools, so that they could make teachers aware of it,” Thompson said. “We’d love to see this be something that teachers could implement into their curriculum as a fun lesson but about some important topics about being safe.”

Fifth-graders at Benton Grade School participated in the unveiling of the game and Thompson said the children provided positive feedback on it. “Some of them were already asking when the next version was going to come out,” she said.

Although some students already want to see new scenarios added to the game, it seeks to keep their interest as is. “They play it through once, and it’s pretty much a learning experience the first time through,” Thompson said. “Then they can play it over and over, and there’s a clock that times how long it takes them [to complete] each segment and those times can get them onto a leader board that’s maintained on our website.” By tracking best times on the website, it’s hoped that children will repeatedly play the game, thus reinforcing its safety and preparedness messages.

With emergency managers at all levels of government eager to promote preparedness in communities, initiatives like IEMA’s will be a must-watch.

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.