Research and Game Design 

Our Research

In Portland, Oregon, young adults are one of the least prepared groups for the Cascadia quake (DHM Research, 2017). This is, in part, due to limitations associated with this phase in life; young adults have fewer financial resources, are more mobile and less likely to own a home, and often are less involved in physical (vs. virtual) community support networks. Preparedness messaging often fails to address these limitations, as it is usually targets families and homeowners. But young adults could have advantages for preparedness and mitigation efforts, including physical capacity, creativity, and ability to organize with other young adults. In fact, young adult volunteers can be a vital part of disaster response, as shown in work by Nissen and others (2021)

Our research seeks to understand what motivates people in general, and young adults in particular, to prepare for disaster in order to inform future preparedness messaging and outreach. We use video games as a research tools because they are more experiential than traditional media and can be used to simulate the outcomes of actions made under conditions that are rare in real life. They also make make room for solving problems in lots of different ways, and they jibe with the media preferences of young adults. 

Our use of video games as digital interactive environments began in 2018 with a proof-of-concept pilot study. In 2019, we received a grant from the Humans, Disasters, and the Built Environment program at the National Science Foundation (#1917148) entitled Rehearsing Disaster: Understanding Earthquake Preparedness Behavior in an Interactive Environment. Successive games made for the project will be titled Cascadia 9.0, 9.1, etc. We consult with emergency managers along the way about their top priorities for community preparedness, and we demo our game solutions to check for consistency with current knowledge and best practices. We share our research results directly with emergency managers, and after each of our Cascadia 9 experiments, our games will be publicly available for anyone to play and use. 

Past: Cascadia Earthquake 

The very first earthquake video game we made was called Cascadia Earthquake and was developed using RPG Maker (Version 41.0.2272.76) in 2018. In the 2D game, the player purchases supplies, finds drinking water, turns off a gas valve, and helps an injured person out of an apartment building, with the help of other neighbors. We used the game in an experiment that manipulated the level of resources the player had and their avatar choice and name. We found that playing the game significantly increased players' self-efficacy or confidence in their own ability to prepare for and respond to an earthquake. Self-reported preparedness also increased for 8 out of 1o actions after 7 months.  Surprisingly, players who did not get to choose and name their avatars had higher self-efficacy than those who did! For a fuller description of the the study results, consult our CHI Conference paper.

The game does have an easter egg hidden that allows you visit a secret and powerful entity living underground that can solve all of your problems (while transforming you into a rat!).  You can play the game here. 

Present: Cascadia 9.0

The most recent version of Cascadia 9.0, which is available to play here, was developed in 2021. We moved to 3D for this game and created it using the Unity Game Development Platform. Mini-games were also introduced which allow the player to practice water sanitation, waste management, and other survival skills.  

Our Cascadia 9.0 experiment compared the impacts of video game play and web searching on learning, self-confidence, motivation, and action toward earthquake preparedness. Both media experiences had similar positive long-term impacts, but video game play was more engaging and stimulated more short-term learning, information-seeking, and self-confidence in ability to cope. See the abstracts from 2022 Researchers Meeting at the Natural Hazards Center Workshop and the European Geosciences Union meeting for more info, and stay tuned for our paper in progress!

Future: Cascadia 9.1

Cascadia 9.1 is currently under development. Utilizing TopDown Engine and Pixel Crusher's Dialogue System, Cascadia 9.1 guides the player through a more complex map and setting. Updated lighting gives the game a more atmospheric appearance, and grid-based movement helps decrease problems with collisions during gameplay. 

Cascadia 9.1 also takes a different approach to narrative and setting. It is a shorter game (roughly 30 minutes) with no levels. Instead, the player travels freely between a few locations, discovering and addressing a variety of post-earthquake challenges along the way.


DHM Research (2017). “Bureau of Emergency Management Services Omnibus Report: Telephone & Online Survey, Focus Groups.” Portland, OR., 109 pp.

Nilsen, E., Safran, E., Drake, P., & Sebok, B. (2020). Playing a Serious Game for Earthquake Preparedness: Effects of Resource Richness and Avatar Choice. In Extended Abstracts of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1-7.

Nissen, Sylvia, Sally Carlton, Jennifer H.K. Wong, and Sam Johnson (2021). “‘Spontaneous’ Volunteers? Factors Enabling the Student Volunteer Army Mobilisation Following the Canterbury Earthquakes, 2010–2011.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction v. 53: 102008.