Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Inside the Haiti Earthquake: student perspectives on a serious game

For the last two years I have used the interactive online game Inside the Haiti Earthquake as one of the “required readings” for my upper-level course on peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction at McGill University. The simulation challenges players to assume the role of an earthquake survivor, an aid worker, or a journalist, and in so doing highlights the many complexities and dilemmas of humanitarian relief operations.

This year, Inside the Haiti Earthquake stimulated a quite lively online discussion among students in the class about the game and its impact. Their unprompted commentary offers insight into how useful a serious game of this sort can be when it is crafted in an engaging, thoughtful, and nuanced way—and so, with their permission, I’ve posted some of their unedited thoughts below.

AB, a third year undergraduate who is majoring political science and English, wrote:

I found the game to be fantastic. Extremely unsettling, but I applaud the designers no-holds-barred approach to presenting the graphic realities of the situation.

From the AID worker’s perspective, it reminded me a Prof. Brynen’s remarks in lecture regarding situations that provide no clear “right” answers. You are down there to help and assist those in need, there is death and suffering all around you, yet you have to ignore the tugging on your heart-strings and maintain a pragmatic, organized approach to relief effort. That was difficult enough to do in a game scenario, I can only imagine what it is like in real life.

Secondly, the bigger picture reveals that there is not only a responsibility to the survivors, but to the donors who have sent you to the disaster stricken area on their behalf. You want to do the best job possible. Journalists, for their part, want to get the best story possible, and more often than not, doing your job in the most effective way does not necessarily generate positive impressions. This is a balancing act that, as the game suggested, could easily leave one overwhelmed.

Thirdly, as a survivor, the game really illustrates the difficulty in maintaining hope in a desperate situation. The image of that looter being shot was quite disturbing. It forces one to wonder if they would be tempted to do the same thing if they had a starving family that has yet to receive any relief. At the same time, maintaining a semblance of law and order in these circumstances is also essential for progress to be achieved and relief to be effectively carried out.

Lastly, to answer your question, I think the main responsibility of games like this are to present the situation as accurately as possible. Toning it down will only do a disservice to those who play, as well as to those who are on the scene and dealing with vast array of complexities that these scenarios present. Perhaps some of the public will not want to digest such imagery and information, but perhaps other players will benefit from learning about how difficult relief efforts can be. In turn, this will enable them to approach information presented about these circumstances in the future from a more critical and understanding perspective.

SL, a third year undergraduate majoring in international development studies, also discussed the role that graphic realism played in shaping the simulation experience:

I also played the game a couple of nights ago and had similarly strong and contradictory reactions to it. At first I thought it was too graphic, but further into the simulation as I went back through each character to try different paths I realized that the images and the footage have to be a realistic representation of the reality in Haiti after the earthquake. Otherwise, I would not have felt compelled to skip the UN cluster meetings and give out aid in a disorganized hodge-podge. I wouldn’t have felt the same desperation as a survivor trying to find someone to help and being turned away by everyone. As a journalist, I wouldn’t have felt the pressure to label the images I saw in order to satisfy a pushy producer who wants a story.

The best part of this simulation is going back through it to learn from your original ‘mistakes’ – not oversimplifying a story before understanding it, not hastily distributing aid in an ineffective manner… As an IDS student myself, I was also well aware of these ‘lessons’ prior to engaging in the sim. The images were so real and the need seemed so urgent, I couldn’t resist jumping right into the fray and trying to help as much and as quickly as possible. I thought it interesting that the UN cluster meeting leader immediately told all the NGO workers present that they shouldn’t ask the UN for anything, because the answer would be no. I wonder if this is a typical speech prior to a coordinated aid distribution effort? If so, I wonder what an NGO worker does when they are stuck and have nowhere to turn.

Finally, I would have liked to see the perspective of a development worker also. The sim almost off-handedly mentions a polluted water-source that is making people sick. The bulldozers and excavators attempt to clear away the rubble while now-homeless Haitians scramble around trying to scavenge whatever they can out of the remains of their city. Haitians are living in tent cities that are ripe grounds for disease. These are development problems that need more integrated, long-term projects to resolve. I think a ‘follow-up’ sim, with the same concept of 3 different characters, should be made including an international development worker, a local entrepreneur, and again a journalist. The journalist would be particularly interesting because as the Haitian earthquake is no longer the ‘crisis du jour’ (as mentioned in other posts), it would be interesting to come up with a reason for the journalist to be there and what their story would include.

I’d also just like to mention how ridiculous I thought the American soldier was for asking the Haitian men to write down their names, occupations, *phone numbers and addresses*. I couldn’t believe he said that. The sim tells you to move on because your cell-phone was destroyed and you no longer HAVE an address… I was glad that the creators of the game responded to this ignorant statement. Although, now that I think of it, perhaps the soldier’s request for information was a subtle message to the men outside the gates that the army wasn’t going to hire anyone. Something to ponder.

AH, a third year political science and sociology major, had these comments:

I also played the “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” game and had some similar feelings as you. I personally thought that the game had a powerful impact on my basic understanding and knowledge of providing aid during times of crisis in general.

After reading many of the articles assigned for this class on humanitarian aid as well as listening to Prof. Brynen’s lecture on the difficulty of providing aid during times of crisis (such as in a civil war or a natural disaster in this case), I thought that I understood what I could do in order to provide aid to the people who most needed it within a systematic and timely matter. However, the game really opened my eyes as to how difficult administering aid really is, especially under a time constraint.

Within the game setting, I often found myself trying to choose between many options that all seemed worthy of action; however, some actions proved to have worse outcomes than others. I wasn’t expecting some of the outcomes that came with the actions that I chose and the game really opened my eyes as to how better planning and organization needs to go into aid distribution. In addition, the game highlighted the need to talk to the local population in order to determine which areas need the most aid, rather than relying on just the information provided by international or regional organizations. I know that it is hard trying to coordinate the actions of so many people, but I think that it is necessary in order to avoid chaos (as I experienced in this game setting).

In response to your question, I do not think that games, which insert the viewer into the crisis, need to be less intense in order for the popular public to grasp onto them. I think the reason more people don’t know about this game is just a matter of lack of media attention on the game itself. Maybe the national media just wasn’t aware of this particular game, despite its recent award. If anything, I think that the more intense games would create greater media attention for their graphic imagery and lifelike situations.

Regardless, I think that this game was very informative as to highlighting the key problems associated with the distribution of aid in times of internal crisis. Local actors often have to choose between many options and I think that this game showed how some options are better than others and people trying to distribute goods in these areas should be prepared to effectively handle the many options that they may face. Like you, I believe that more people (not just university students) should play this game so that they get a better understanding as to what is truly going on in areas of internal strife. Hopefully, this game can provide other people with insight on the necessity to try to talk with local populations and coordinate relief efforts before aid is distributed recklessly.

BK, a third year music and education student (with a minor in international relations) emphasizes how the game can change perceptions:

I have just played through the “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” game, and my entire world view has been opened, with many times I was sitting there thinking “Wow. I’ve lived an extremely lucky life to be where I am in Canada, a first-world country where we do not have these problems.”

Playing through the game as the refugee first, I was stunned at the images of looting/searching for goods through abandoned and dilapidated structures. I put myself in the shoes of those who are in that situation, and would probably do the same thing if it was the means of survival. I’m not sure how I would move on though emotionally if my entire family had been killed in an earthquake, along with all of my belongings and home, leaving me with only the clothes on my back. Being refused work from the Red Cross also stung as well, instilling a sense of hopelessness of rebuilding and earning some money and resources from work, and helping to rebuild the town.

When playing through this game as a journalist, I was conflicted. I wanted to help, but I also wanted to please my employers and keep my job. I ended up being fired because I took an angle on the story too soon, when I was going on my gut instincts throughout the whole game in guiding me for my decisions. I realized that it is important to give stories and images that will deeply effect the decreasingly sensitive general public audience, to have them the most informed possible on the situation. It is also important to take a side when reporting, but I was really conflicted over what side to take, and how to portray what was being filmed and recorded, as there was chaos, but it was aid being delivered to the general population, with people being injured during the distribution.

As the aid worker in the third time through the game, I took a more thorough approach, investigating the big picture, assessing all of the needs before being called that the shipment arrived. I also tried to network with the Canadian Consulate, only to realize how overrun it was with people seeking to become refugees in Canada and receiving travel visas. At that point, I was quite thankful for the fact that I am a Canadian, born and raised to never have to seek refuge in another country.

I wish that there was more international efforts by governments to provide international aid. In an ideal world, democracies would negotiate through their disagreements to come to a mutual agreement that is of the most benefit for both sides, instead of spending BILLIONS of dollars on warfare, killing and at times, even creating or encouraging situations like these which require humanitarian aid. In some states where there are rebel attackers and armies, humanitarian aid never actually makes it to those in need, and is diverted or sold off for a much-inflated price to those in need. Being idealistic, it would be only too perfect if funds were redirected into international peacekeeping efforts by major international powers, instead of fuelling their armies…. of course, this would be an effort that would have to be mediated and a sincere and promised priority for all in order to help provide faster aid. (especially in times of natural disaster!)

It is possible that states are less likely to assist states for which they have no stakes or motives to ensure their survival, but do it out of humanitarian concerns and to assist neighbors in need. It is important as well (and a bit of a balancing act/conundrum!) that states also fund their own needs in social security, economy, health care, etc. and prioritize that before international humanitarian aid, which in a perfect world, would be prioritized before military spending if all states would negotiate in a democratic fashion…

Alas, only in a perfect/ideal world would this actually work. I’m a Music Education student minoring in IR, if I was teaching a social studies class or global justice, I would certainly have high school (gr. 11-12) students try out this game!

One of the themes I frequently highlight in POLI 450 concerns the complex trade-offs and difficult moral choices that practitioners can face when operating in fragile, conflict- and disaster-affected countries. KW, a third year political science major, also commented on this:

Wow! Very intense game indeed. Not only did it show the devastation of the earthquake, but it showed how difficult it is for aid distribution to be done successfully amidst so many starving people desperate for food. despite the fact that it was just a game, I found myself really struggling to pick the right option in fear of only making things worse. I can only begin to imagine being a real aid worker on the ground having to make these actual decisions (of course, without the luxury of having 2 or 3 different decisions being presented).

This simulation gave me a greater appreciation for those who work in the field. they have almost unimaginable responsibilities, and their decisions could even mean the lives of thousands. After completely failing the journalist role the first time around, I felt a sense of shame–even though it’s an online game. thus, for those who actually have to make the real decisions, and who are put between a rock and a hard place day in and day out, I commend you!

AS,  a second year student in international development studies, highlighted the way in which the game humanized the challenges of emergency relief:

It was really eye-opening to realize that all the decisions made on the ground are made by real people—it’s easy for me to imagine a UN agency as a single entity robotically working towards maximum efficiency to distribute food, water, medical aid, and so on, when in fact there are many individual workers and volunteers working with limited resource and expertise and under immense pressures from various actors with very different interests. When playing the role of the humanitarian aid worker, for example, one of the first challenges was figuring out how to get your aid to shore. It turned out that asking a local fisherman for help was the only answer. In fact, many of the endeavors of the humanitarian aid worker required informal agreements with local people and other groups and actors—there were no official UN trucks and escorts as I had perhaps imagined. Success in this role was contingent upon individual initiative, resourcefulness, and rational decision-making in the face of immense local and international pressure.

Taking on the role of the journalist both helped to highlight the broad range of interests being represented on the ground, and to raise questions about ethical practices in journalism in crisis situations. I could see how the journalist was facing pressures to get a story from her editor and from donor groups who had sent her there, which may work contrary to the interests of the aid workers looking to deliver aid in an organized (though perhaps less sensational) manner rather than create the perfect scene for a story. As the journalist, I kept being pressured by my editor to choose an angle for my story with an inadequate understanding of what was really happening around me, which gave me a good idea of how news stories that emerge from crises can be inadvertently biased or only reveal partial truths. I eventually “won” by successfully resisting my editors’ demands to choose an angle immediately, and the result was a story depicting the local people’s efforts to rebuild their lives rather than a story condemning international aid workers’ inefficiencies or casting survivors as animalistic, lawless looters, both of which had been options at various parts of the game. This brought up other ethical issues for media workers as well; for example, what is the journalists’ responsibility towards aid groups and the local people? On one hand, it’s the media’s job to tell the truth; on the other hand, depicting an aid group as inefficient and withholding needed goods from the population lowers morale and could negatively impact donations. There is also the issue of “poverty porn” and other emotional manipulations of local peoples’ stories, which can disempower them and reduce them to objects of aid in the eyes of the international community. In this Haiti game, doing so might have worked counter to the empowered manner in which the survivors were attempting to rebuild.

Finally, I mistakenly believed that I would learn the most about humanitarian aid by taking on the role of the relief worker or of the journalist documenting the efforts; but, of course, as Brynen stressed in class on Monday, most relief actually consists of efforts by the disaster-affected populations themselves (in the case of this game, the “survivor”).

SR, a Danish graduate student in political science who is currently an exchange student at McGill, commented on how engaging the experience was:

I also found the game a real great educational tool and quite an eye opener to the complexities associated with humanitarian aid in situations of crisis. It makes it really clear that you can’t plan for everything, and that it´s about to impossible to predict the consequences and overall impact on ones choices. It also does a very good job of showing some of the possible stumbling blocks you may be confronted with as an aid worker (e.g. how to get gas for the car, the impossibility to retrieve ones goods and valuables as a survivor, or the impossibility to enter the embassy as a journalist) However you can minimize risk I guess.

I agree with another comment here that the game only works this well precisely because of the strong images. If it wasn´t for the strong images, I think the choices you have to make wouldn’t be as difficult. It would be much easier to just follow textbook recommendations, but I believe that the real world very rarely is like a textbook example.

I think the games does an excellent job in exemplifying the ”time is of an essence” perspective and trade-off between on the one hand acting in timely manner and on the other hand the need for organizing and coordination, as was mentioned by Brynen in class the other day.

As an aid worker I turned down the journalists offer to do a positive story on a small NGO acting independently when the need was great, in order to go to the UN coordination meeting. The media subsequently published a negative story on how the UN and NGO community were dragging their feet, when all the needy people were just outside the fences. Boy I felt like I made the wrong decision, in allowing the distribution of aid to be postponed and swallowed up by bureaucratic routines and rules.

I then later on found out that all this coordination actually often is the best choice, as it often minimizes the risk of havoc and makes sure that the aid is also distributed to the most vulnerable and not only to the strongest.

This was just one of the many examples of difficult choices and trade offs that the game showed me.

Keep in mind, when reading the comments above, that I didn’t solicit them or even require or ask that students comment on the game.Rather, they’re simply a representative sample of the class discussion on our online discussion board for the course. While I’ve been quite critical of a lot of the serious games out there in my field , in this case the designers clearly got something right. (Thanks, of course, to the students above for allowing me to post their comments here.)

* * *

UPDATE: I’m still getting student comments on this one. AB, who is majoring in International Development Studies, remarked:

Late Tuesday night I played “Inside the Haiti Earthquake”, the game assigned as part of this sections readings. I had some really strong reactions to it, and am curious to hear what others thought about the game.

Personally, I found it really effective. Despite being in my final semester of an IDS degree I found myself struggling between what I knew I should do and what I felt compelled to do as a result of the overwhelming images of desperate people who – due to the nature of the game – I felt some responsibility to.

Being in IDS and all the other organizations I’m hooked into I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the game before. It won a gaming award in 2011 and yet this is the first time I have ever heard of it. I think it’s a fantastic educational tool and would be beneficial for anyone to play, not just university students, yet it really hasn’t received much media attention.

The video and pictures the game uses come from a documentary of the same name and are quite intense. I sort of wonder if this is perhaps some of the reason it has not been latched onto by the public.

My question is, do you think games and other imagery from humanitarian crises which insert the viewer into the crisis need to be less intense in order for the popular public to grasp onto them? I’m also curious as to what other people thought of the game generally.

LeH, a third year student in political science and East Asian studies, added:

I played this game both as an aid worker and as a journalist. In the first scenario, I put the lives of the survivors at risk by relying on the military to distribute aid on a first come first serve basis, thus excluding the most vulnerable. In the second scenario, I was fired by my producer. I felt horrible, and it helped me realize how challenging relief campaigns really are.

I personally come from Lebanon, a developing country, and in high school I volunteered at the Red Cross for a year. Although I wasn’t a relief worker in a humanitarian crisis situation, I worked in the poorest areas of Beirut and provided food on religious holidays as well as organized hygiene awareness campaigns among other things. I’ve also taken courses on development before here at McGill and knew what I was supposed to do in theory, so I naturally thought I would score high on the game. But my emotions kept getting in the way of my judgment. I couldn’t bear to wait until the UN finished coordinating all the relief efforts when people were dying, and instead I went out by myself to deliver the food (in the game). In the end, I ended up hurting the most vulnerable by distributing the supplies to an angry mob, instead of waiting for the Red Cross (how ironic) to help me deliver my NGO’s supplies.

As a journalist, I kept making my producer angry, because I helped a woman who was getting trampled instead of just filming the scene to let the world know what’s happening, and I refused to show aid workers in a positive light because I wanted to focus on the challenges of the survivors instead of glorifying the UN who looked like it wasn’t doing that well. My producer found me inconsistent in finding a good angle for the story and fired me.

During this simulation, I learned a few lessons. Most importantly, I learned the importance of coordinating relief efforts between different NGOs. Waiting a few more days to deliver aid is worth it if it reaches the most vulnerable, and if it preserves survivors’ dignity that they don’t have to trample over each other to get water and food. It ensures smart planning like giving pregnant women priority to get food so they can feed their kids and other kids made orphans by the disaster.

I became aware of the moral implications of every choice that aid workers and journalists make. I also like the fact that the game exposes a reality that we have talked about in class which is “aid pornography” and the idea of the “white knight”. The media is hungry for stories depicting the misery of the survivors, and NGOs are hungry for recognition and for more donations, so they use the images of the helpless survivors to their benefit, at the expense of providing relief, and at the expense of the truth.

In addition, check out the comments section below for additional remarks from David Becker (who served as the US Stabilization Coordinator in Haiti from 2007 to 2010) and Katie McKenna (Interactive Producer, Inside the Haiti Earthquake).

5 responses to “Inside the Haiti Earthquake: student perspectives on a serious game

  1. David Becker 27/01/2012 at 11:13 pm

    I was both a survivor of the Haiti earthquake itself (admittedly, as an upper class expatriate), and after packing my family off to the US I worked disaster relief for 6 months post quake. I can attest to the reality of the scenes and the choices that had to be made. Some of the scenes I literally witnessed live. Although your students mention the difficult choices, if anything, some things were simplified to fit into the format. Uncertainties were far more prevalent as we tried to make sense of the limited raw reporting mixed with rumor. And I can also add that simply finding a truck, or fuel, or picking up food from the port, were far more difficult and time consuming than even shown in the videos. I have some sympathy for the UN OCHA rep. It was not that they did not want to help other NGOs, but that at 4 days after the quake, they were still trying to rescue their own headquarters staff from the rubble. There were literally 100’s of small NGOS who arrived to help, but they were not prepared for the situation and ended up asking other organizations for support because they were unprepared to support themselves. Some criticized the US military presence, but the military – although untrained in disaster assistance – supported themselves, provided communications for many others, were key to operating the airport, opening and repairing the seaport, and organizing and providing security for food distribution when it became obvious to all that crowd control was crucial. I find the game to be excellent, and have recommended it to others both as a way to get a sense of what we lived, but also as a true learning opportunity.

  2. Rex Brynen 27/01/2012 at 11:19 pm

    David: Thanks for the comment–and high praise indeed for the game, given your own expertise and experience.

  3. Katie McKenna; Interactive Producer, Inside the Haiti Earthquake 28/01/2012 at 3:08 pm

    Rex, can’t thank you enough for integrating our project into your classroom, and sharing your students’ reactions here. I’ve shared the blog with our entire team; everyone is so happy to see the project still making an impact two years after its release. This exactly the kind of effect and discussion we were hoping it would provoke, and we’re really grateful to get such thoughtful responses from the students.

  4. Rex Brynen 28/01/2012 at 3:36 pm

    Katie: thank you to you and the team for developing it. Please note that some of the students asked for a sequel ;)

  5. Rex Brynen 08/02/2012 at 10:22 pm

    I’ve updated the blog post to include some additional student comment.

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