Student from Del Mar helps advance earthquake preparedness with video games

Students Elise Gilmore, Natalie Casson, Liza Clairagneau and Professor Liz Safran
(Lewis and Clark College)

The recent 6.4 and 7.1 magnitude earthquakes in Ridgecrest, which could be felt throughout a radius that included Los Angeles and Las Vegas, served as an eyeopening experience for many West Coast residents when it comes to earthquake preparedness.

A team at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, including a student from Del Mar, received a $559,617 grant from the National Science Foundation, along with support from the John S. Rogers Science Research Program, to develop a video game that helps give them insight into how the younger, more vulnerable segments of the population would handle an earthquake.

It will specifically target 18- to 29-year-olds in the area, who they said are typically less prepared for earthquakes or other disasters. Elise Gilmore, a psychology major in Lewis and Clark’s class of 2020, said that many of them feel like “an earthquake seems like such a huge event that you don’t have control over.”

“We’re using video games as a way to reach the target population effectively and show them there are skills and knowledge that are really useful to prepare for all sorts of disasters,” she said.

Their project will help determine whether video games are more effective than traditional text and video means of instilling earthquake preparedness. The game will be used as a research tool with the hope that it will eventually be publicly available for anyone to play and learn.

The game’s graphics resemble the original Pokemon Gameboy games, she said. It will allow them to assess how players approach tasks such as getting drinking water, shutting off the gas valve and helping neighbors.

The infamous San Andreas fault, which runs through California, is expected to produce the next big earthquake that devastates Southern California, which hasn’t had one of 7.8 magnitude or greater in over 150 years. The Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia subduction zone, a 600-mile fault that runs from northern California into Canada, has the potential to create 9-magnitude earthquakes.

Public officials throughout the coast often urge their constituents to take basic first steps to be prepared, such as keeping a supply of bottled water to last a few days in the immediate aftermath. But research by the California Public Policy Institute over the last 15 years shows that one-third of California residents consider themselves very knowledgeable about preparing for an earthquake, and a little more than half said they are somewhat knowledgeable.

“The crux of the problem is really about getting people to engage with this problem and getting motivated to deal with it,” said Liz Safran, who teaches a natural disasters course as an associate professor of geological science.

Safran assembled a team that includes professors of psychology, computer science, and rhetoric and media.

“That’s something that I think is kind of special about a liberal arts college where it’s a small environment and the faculty all know each other,” she said.

Gilmore and another psychology major are working with survey data, and two computer science and math students are working on the the design and creation of the game.

“It ties back to my coursework just in the sense that it’s a really interesting research opportunity,” she said.