PETlab and the Red Cross Use Gaming for Good

Players collaborate in Before the Storm, a game of forecasts and actions.

A group of men crowded around a table in St. Louis, Senegal, scribble notes on small rectangles of paper and pass them back and forth. The cards have hand-drawn pictures of houses, chickens, or squiggly lines meant to represent water. As they talk and laugh, an onlooker in a smock emblazoned with the words “Croix-Rouge” follows along, occasionally leaning in to offer advice. The men at the table and at others nearby are playing Early Warning, Early Action, a game developed by students at Parsons’ PETlab, a research group that creates games in collaboration with organizations acting in the public interest. Early Warning, Early Action was developed with the Red Cross to help vulnerable populations prepare for weather disasters.

The game is one of several designed by PETlab and the Red Cross that are intended to help the public engage with complex or dry topics in new ways. Some of PETlab’s games have been extremely effective and popular. One example is Humans vs. Mosquitos, in which players are broken into two teams, humans and mosquitos, to try to eradicate each other in an active form of malaria-prevention education. School children in Africa, high-level staff of the Red Cross, and employees of other international NGOs have all tried their hand at the game.

This summer, Parsons students are helping the Red Cross with another problem. “In our Climate Centre, we often have weather forecasts that, if communicated effectively, could prevent people from dying in floods,” said Erin Coughlan, technical advisor for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. “The problem is, we’re missing two steps: one is communicating the forecast itself, and the other is helping people understand the forecast.”

So, in spring 2012, Macklin and her students designed games to help educate residents of Africa’s Zambezi River Basin—a large swath of southern Africa including parts of Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe— on how to respond to potentially destructive weather events caused by climate change. Events such as flooding are often predicted far in advance but still cause serious damage to residents and property.

Macklin and 18 undergraduate and graduate students in the BFA Communication Design, MFA Design and Technology, and MFA Transdisciplinary Design programs at Parsons created a series of games to help residents understand how to respond to disasters and interpret weather reports. “It was a real deep dive,” Macklin says. “We had to learn about the region, as well as climate modeling, disaster preparedness logistics, and how the Red Cross operates. There was also a lot of research involved in creating the design and making a game about a serious issue that, we hope, is super fun and gets passed around and becomes viral.”

The games they created offer elegant solutions to several problems. For example, how do you help someone who lacks significant exposure to weather forecasts and simple expressions of probability to understand something like “a 16 percent chance of rain?” For that problem, Macklin and her students developed a game that involves a simple roll of a six-sided die (16 percent is a one-in-six chance, the same as the roll of a die). “People can understand that very easily,” says Coughlan.

Macklin and her students will spend this summer “play testing”—a term she prefers to “field testing”—the games in the region this summer.