On the subject of the role of games in disaster preparedness and response, an article,Â “Masters of Disaster” from the most recent Wharton Magazine, describes the computer simulation, Quake. It wasÂ designed by Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer ofÂ 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,Â 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 cashâ€”$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 peopleâ€™s houses and observe their decisions.
Kanreuther who wrote the excellent book,Â 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.
â€œThey think, â€˜Can I get away with the next 30 seconds in the game?â€™â€ says Meyer. â€œâ€˜What are the odds of getting destroyed in the next 30 seconds? Well, probably very little.â€™ So they think, â€˜OK, Iâ€™ll go a minute.â€™ And of course eventually they get destroyed.â€
Meyer and Kunreuther have found that thereâ€™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 â€œwinâ€ the gameâ€”i.e., by building the strongest house possible, as quickly as possible, and then just sitting on itâ€”the student still wonâ€™t do it, preferring to rack up those sweet interest payments.
Itâ€™s not like the students donâ€™t know whatâ€™s coming, either. When asked if they understand whatâ€™s going on, they always say, yeah, they get it: theyâ€™re about to get hit by an earthquake. So if itâ€™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 planningâ€”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 â€œhave a difficult time translating that belief that itâ€™s going to happen to a short-term actionâ€â€”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 anotherâ€™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.