Friday, November 14, 2008

Shaken Not Stirred

Yesterday, at 10AM, millions of Southern Californians, including my two children, participated in The Great Southern California ShakeOut, a truly massively multiplayer disaster simulation in which the puppet masters were geologists at the USGS and regional emergency response planners. (The USGS created a number of videos of aerial view simulations showing the effects of a 7.8 earthquake in various local communities. To those with a YouTube attention span, they don't look very scary at first, but just wait until about seventy seconds in.) The ShakeOut website also solicits user-generated content from participants, including photos and stories from the events of the day. Although the official site has yet to post this content, ShakeOut photos are already turning up in places like Flickr. The ShakeOut Site is also promoting After Shock, a "massively collaborative earthquake simulation," and an online serious game, Beat the Quake.

In Beat the Quake, the player decides how to secure over a dozen household objects by choosing from a multiple choice menu. Once all the decisions are made the room animates with movement and object-smashing chaos takes over. (I aimed for a score of zero for maximum comic effect.) In the paper "The Birth of the Virtual Clinic," I argue that such computer-only games that represent crises in public health or safety serve a rhetorical purpose that involves the dissemination of expert knowledge without engaging in the kind of community role-playing activities that had shaped the training of a previous generation of emergency first responders. In many ways, the Great ShakeOut de-emphasized representing the emergency on the screen or in 3-D virtual space, although -- like many of the alternate reality games praised by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture for their participatory ethos -- computational technologies were essential for coordinating activities.

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