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Wharton’s “Quake” Simulation Game Shows Why Humans Do Such A Poor Job Planning For & Learning From Catastrophes

June 4th, 2010 · 18 Comments

On the subject of the role of games in disaster preparedness and response, an article, “Masters of Disaster” from the most recent Wharton Magazine, describes the computer simulation, Quake. It was designed by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer of the Philadelphia school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, to test ideas about how humans perceive risk. Amazingly, everyone who has played the game has ended up destroying themselves. This subject is even more relevant to current events as risk perception and management have become front and center topics in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In the game, Quake players are:

presented with a little icon of a house on a map of a hypothetical country. They also get a pot of digital cash—$20,000. Players are told at the start of the game that at any time, an earthquake can hit, either severe or mild, and that three to five quakes will hit during the course of the game. Then all the players have to do, it turns out, is decide what to do with their money: they can pump it into their homes, making them safer by purchasing a series of structural upgrades (to the chimney, the door frame, the roof, etc.) or they can leave it in the bank and earn 10 percent interest. The game unfolds in real time, and up to 10 people can inhabit the same Quake world at one time. Players can see other people’s houses and observe their decisions.

Wharton Learning Lab Quake Screenshot

Kanreuther who wrote the excellent book, At War With The Weather, last year with his Wharton colleague Erwann O. Michel-Kerjan, has run the simulation in his class for the past four years:

By now, about 500 students have played the game, and every time, they play it essentially the same way.

They tend to begin the game cautiously, spending money to build stronger roofs and walls. But as the game goes on, they take more risks. Instead of spending their money to avoid disaster and death, they keep it in the bank to earn interest.

“They think, ‘Can I get away with the next 30 seconds in the game?’” says Meyer. “‘What are the odds of getting destroyed in the next 30 seconds? Well, probably very little.’ So they think, ‘OK, I’ll go a minute.’ And of course eventually they get destroyed.”

Meyer and Kunreuther have found that there’s nothing they can do to prevent the students from destroying themselves. Even if one of them pulls a student aside and explicitly tells her how to “win” the game—i.e., by building the strongest house possible, as quickly as possible, and then just sitting on it—the student still won’t do it, preferring to rack up those sweet interest payments.

It’s not like the students don’t know what’s coming, either. When asked if they understand what’s going on, they always say, yeah, they get it: they’re about to get hit by an earthquake. So if it’s not stupidity or ignorance, why do the students keep losing? Kunreuther and Meyer believe the game demonstrates a psychological bias toward short-term maximization instead of long-term planning—a psychological bias all humans share.

Meyer has tried out the Quake simulation with groups of corporate executives, and the results are the same. The players always see the quake coming, and they always “have a difficult time translating that belief that it’s going to happen to a short-term action”—much the same way, in fact, that the government of Haiti failed to adequately prepare for the possibility of a major earthquake.

The Quake players derive a sense of security from observing the flimsiness of one another’s houses. If everyone around you has a house of straw, having a straw house yourself seems somehow safer.

Of course, this is wrong.

The full article can be found here.

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Tags: Preparedness Resources · Risk Communications

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Nicolas // Jun 10, 2010 at 8:31 am

    “The full article can be found here.”

    the here links to nothing, the URL is wrong : “http:///”

  • 2 admin // Jun 10, 2010 at 8:35 am

    thanks for noticing this. i just made the correction on the post. the link is

  • 3 Mike Curran // Jun 10, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Why are they surprised at the results? It is only a game of chicken, and that’s been when define in game theory. If all the players are familiar with the game, it reduces to Wait X seconds and then build up the house. Whoever waits the longest X wins unless X exceeds the time until the game ending quake, in which case you lose.

  • 4 sconzey // Jun 10, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I’m dubious that studies like this can be mapped directly to real-world decision making. After all, the “money” made in the game is of approximately the same value as the “death” in the game. Whereas, in real life, not dying is far more important than money for most people.

  • 5 lakemalcom // Jun 10, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    What a joke! This game sounds incredibly boring. Anyone would try to spice up the gameplay by making it (as a previous commenter wrote) a game of chicken. The whole idea of computer games is to add a factor of uncertainty. It makes it more exciting. What fun is a game if winning is just clicking a few buttons? It seems like the logical conclusion is to get a “higher score” by having more money AND an indestructible house. That’s the challenging, fun, aspect right there.

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  • 8 uk visa // Jun 11, 2010 at 9:32 am

    The article is worth reading down to the last line:
    The war we have to fight is “not a war like the War on Terror, against other people,” Michel-Kerjan says. “It’s mainly a war against ourselves. And that may be harder.”
    … If we were able to meet our future selves we’d behave very differently now!

  • 9 r.meyer // Jun 11, 2010 at 10:51 am

    A few words of clarification about our “quake” simulation. First, to respond to Mike’s comment, it is NOT a game of “Chicken”—although it arises in a social setting, each participant is playing a repeated, continuous-time game against nature in which their gains are losses are entirely a function of the actions they take, not their neighbors (i.e., whether or not my house falls down has nothing to do with whether yours does). The optimal policy is akin to that for an “armed bandit” problem, solved by backward induction: each player should first compute his or her optimal mitigation strategy given the two possible states of nature—in this case it is either dollar-for-dollar effective or ineffective. Then, given the opportunity to play the game N times (subjects played it 3 times), they should treat the first game as an “experiment” in which a rational participant will build a strong house to gain the knowledge of whether mitigation is effective or ineffective. Each successive game should then be played using the knowledge gained in game 1. If the state of the world is that mitigation is effective, the optimal strategy is to build as strong a house as possible as early as possible in the simulation. If it is ineffective, they should make no investments. In either case it is irrational to “wait a bit” to decide when to build a stronger house—if it is expected-cost effective to do so with N seconds left in the game, by definition it is more cost effective to so with N+I seconds left.

    The paradox of our findings is that: 1)people are poor experimenters—they never make investment decisions that would allow them to efficiently learn the state of nature that they are in; and 2) even when they know the state of nature, they don’t make optimal use of the information. Rather than computing expected gains over the length of the game, they act as if the optimize over very short time taking horizons—i.e., they are myopic.

    As for Sconzy’s comment, as in all laboratory work one has to worry about the degree to which the findings parallel the real world. I guess our reaction to that is in this case one needs only glance at the news to see frightening examples of the kinds of biases we see in our lab studies. Pick your favorite recent disaster—like the BP oil spill. Here you had both BP and its contractors taking short cuts because they fell into the trap of thinking they we playing a short-term game; what can we do to minimize drilling costs this month, overlooking the fact that those short-term actions can have disastrous long-term consequences!

    Finally, I think “lakemalcom” would find the game quite interesting if he/she had a chance to play it—it is ripe with uncertainty, and while our subjects rarely do well in it, they are also rarely bored!

  • 10 Mike Curran // Jun 11, 2010 at 11:57 am

    “The game unfolds in real time, and up to 10 people can inhabit the same Quake world at one time. Players can see other people’s houses and observe their decisions.”

    That led me to call it a chicken simulation. If players are actually playing asynchronously that might prevent that.

    It guess it comes down to your definition of “win”. In a game with multiple players like that, I would attempt to “win” by having a standing house and more money than everyone else. For “winning” strategy of spending all you money at once is not a good strategy to win if the game is competitive.

  • 11 Pedro Fortuny // Jun 11, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    The question is:

    what is the aim of life: to survive or tu try to live out the maximum of it? (in the ‘activity’ sense). I gather the second choice is more sensible.

    Do I want just to be there or to do something?


  • 12 lakemalcom // Jun 11, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    I am in agreement with Mike Curran on this. The purpose of the game is listed as follows: “Each player’s goal is to make mitigation investment decisions in such a way as to maximize their net wealth at the end of the game.” Combine that with other players (synchronously or not), it makes for a system in which players take the most risk possible to achieve the highest score. With that in mind, there’s no equally rewarding behavior in the game for keeping your house. Based on the goal stated above, my strategy would be to keep as much money in the bank as possible and make little or no additions to my house.

    That said, I’d love to have a chance to play the game. :)

  • 13 David Conrad // Jun 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    So, Professor Meyer, have you considered making it available so that the public can try it? I’d love to play the game.

  • 14 rgraham02 // Jun 14, 2010 at 2:40 pm


    As someone who lives in an earthquake zone and is married to the type of European who is generally more risk-averse and forward looking than the average American. I’m fascinated by the results of your simulation. Do you have any papers or materials describing concrete take-aways for the average person?

    Specifically, I’m thinking of my own real-world chimney right now. In contrast to the game, I have no way to experiment. If there were an earthquake today, I have no idea to what degree it’s structurally sound and even less of an idea what the effect of any improvements would be. Having spoken with people who know about masonry, they can’t say much more. Typically, in construction and even at the city planner’s office, the approach is: more is better. Do the most you can and hope for the best.

    Is there any advice for fighting the war against yourself? Oh, and I’d be DELIGHTED to play the game. If you are ever looking to expand your testing pool, please let me know. ;-)

  • 15 Sharif Olorin // Jun 15, 2010 at 4:53 am

    Is there a plan to release the game/source so people can judge the validity of the study for themselves? If not, why not?


  • 16 Holger // Jun 15, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Add a real world punishment for any player who looses his house (for example getting subjected to loud noises for 10 minutes) and you will get a different behaviour after the first game.

    A game is a game. I risk my life daily in games and often get killed. Then I reload.

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  • 18 Marcel // Jun 18, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Just my two cents: when viewing the things you can buy in the screenshot, adding it all up will be far more than the $20000 you start with. So, if I invest $20000 as soon as possible, my bank account will be $0 and there will be no more interest to gain, meaning I can’t improve anymore. You cannot win this game this way! (Unless more money will be added during the game, like a real life ’salary’.) Personally, I would go for a safe house. I also agree that MOST people in my neighbourhood will go for the money. But I’m sure you haven’t selected a random population for your tests, because some specific people like me will definitely win this game. The bad part of your game is that you need money to buy the upgrades. How about this change in the game: the starting interest is 10 percent. Every time you make an upgrade, the interest goes down. You start with enough money to buy all upgrades. Then you can always make a safe house.
    Besides, have you really told all the rules? In my country, a similar game was played with homeless people. The winner with the most game points would get a large amount of real money. From that moment on, because most people needed that money so badly, it was ‘everybody for himself’, so everyone lost the game.

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