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October 9, 2013

Could gamers help during natural disasters?

Internet Response League tells CBR that playing your favourite computer game could help disaster relief efforts in the real world.

By Amy-Jo Crowley

Patrick Meier

Computer gamers who like a challenge might be interested in one with a greater sense of purpose – saving lives in the real world from natural disasters.

That is the idea put forward by the Internet Response League (IRL), which came about due to the surge of social media posts emerging from global disasters.

Tweets, images and videos are not only newsworthy, according to founder Patrick Meier, but can provide aid agencies with close to realtime data about locations that have suffered from hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and tornados.

If this information is properly organised and assessed, it could highlight and help those areas appearing to have suffered the most damage.

"We know that tens of thousands of pictures get shared during major disasters, which capture infrastructure damage and important information for humanitarian organisations. However, the challenge is no one single person has enough time within these organisations to go through all these pictures," says Meier.

This is where gamers could help. Meier, who is director of innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, wants to use them as volunteers to tag relevant photos on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media websites in the wake of natural disasters.

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"You’ve tonnes of people who are already online, clicking, playing games and because of that vast network of connected individuals, we think it’s an untapped resource," explains Meier.

IRL has developed a web plugin, yet to go live, that gaming companies can easily insert into their games. Once a disaster occurs, a small message would appear on the screen telling players how they can help. If users click ‘yes’, they would be directed to a series of images and asked to tag them depending on the damage levels they see in order to give emergency responders an idea of where they are needed.

"It’s pretty straightforward and we’ve had two conference calls with a major gaming company that’s expressed an interest in taking this on," says Meier.

"We’re looking to develop a world mechanism with points, titles, armours and status symbols, which recognises if players have done some good."

But is the incentive structure within the system enough to entice gamers to come back for more tagging as well as involving gaming companies?

Mark Griffiths, professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham University, told CBR that there will always be those people who want to help others without any direct benefit to themselves.

"A recent piece of research we published showed that peoples’ views of gamers are very stereotypical and usually negative. Initiatives such as this could help change those mistaken conceptions," he explains.

"Harnessing the gaming community in this way will only bring gamers together even more for a common goal (something that they typically do in-game anyway). I don’t think gamers per se need incentives to tag and tweet – those that are already doing it outside of their game will now be able to do it without leaving the gaming platform."

Zaheer Hussain, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, added: "Gamers tend to be very altruistic people. I’ve seen this from my own research into online virtual worlds. I don’t think an incentive will be needed to get gamers to participate as they are very skilled people who can do this kind of thing in no time."

Meier, who also works alongside Peter Mosur, an avid gamer and graduate student in emergency management at the Metropolitan College of New York, added that even five minutes of time spent tagging could make a huge difference.

"Because there are so many gamers out there, even if the worst case scenario were only a handful of pictures tagged, that is still a huge plus."

IRL is looking to develop partnerships with different gaming companies and ideally would like to work with the companies behind World of Warcraft and League of Legends.

"We haven’t approached them yet because they’re the top dog and it’s hard to get into these companies," says Meier.

"We’ve had one startup gaming company that are looking to adopt the plugin. The great thing about this company is that they have a social impact programme and a great track record of leveraging their gaming platforms for social good. They’re also huge."

When CBR asked Patrick Sattermon, a former professional gamer and CGO at gaming company Fnatic, if he would back their project, he said: "My answer would be ‘maybe’. There has to be something in it for the organisation behind the players. I would need to know what their ultimate agenda is, like how much money are they earning and how much they plan to make…I would call for a lot of transparency."

For Meier, the biggest challenge is making sense of big data.

"I wouldn’t be part of this if I didn’t think it would work, but it’s a conversation I’ve had with a number of humanitarian partners who are again requesting support on how to manage this information. A lot of these humanitarian technologies being developed to leverage big data are still under development and it won’t be until next year till we find out," he says.


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