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Video games increase US homeland security

A chlorine spill is threatening your city’s population, and the toxic gas is spreading quickly. Within 20 minutes, you need to organise evacuations, deploy medics and prevent gangs of thieves from looting the empty buildings.

It sounds like the latest computer game to exploit 3D virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft, but this one has a difference: It was developed by a team at the Sandia National Laboratories, and will help trainee firemen and policemen to understand the high-pressure reality of an actual threat.

Officers are currently trained with dry presentations and lectures, leaving them unprepared for a real disaster. The new game, called Ground Truth, will allow them to view the consequences of their actions for themselves. It is hoped the game will give workers greater confidence and knowledge, and prepare them to make snappier decisions when they are finally deployed on ground level.

‘I think they will be much more comfortable to make decisions,’ Donna Djordjevich of Sandia told ‘It is easy to see intellectually [the ramifications of actions] but this adds an urgency.’

The game starts with a realistic news report that alerts the player of the spill. They then need to take decisive action to evacuate most of the population, while keeping the inhabitants closest to the spill safe inside their houses so they don't pass through the poisonous air. In addition, police units have to be deployed to prevent traffic jams and stampedes.

The player's score is based on the number of deaths and injuries, and the number of people successfully evacuated. In the background, a team (controlled by the computer rather than the player) is deployed to close the leak on the chlorine tanker. The game ends once this has been achieved.

The game was developed by Donna Djordjevich, a researcher at Sandia, as part of a wider project to investigate the uses of video games to improve US security. It makes use of gaming technology from the University of Southern California's GamePipe Laboratory, to build a realistic, but fictional, city in 3D detail. The team based the model using data from many real chlorine accidents, to make the consequences of the spillage as realistic as possible.

At the moment, all of the city's population follow officers' orders. In the future, Djordjevich hopes to make this more realistic by giving each virtual resident its own individual behaviour, which changes according to the situation. The characters could even develop trust or distrust of the player, depending on how many people he has managed to save from injury.

The team is also hoping to develop the game so it can adapt to how well the player is performing. For example, if the player was particularly successful, another threat could be thrown into the game to stretch them further. They will also create multiplayer versions of the game, and develop it for other scenarios. The game is currently being tested on relevant experts.

This is not the first time computer games have been useful for more serious applications. Recently epidemiologists at Tufts University in the US studied the spread of disease among populations of players in the World of Warcraft game. This proved to be more realistic than previous computer models because the players acted like people faced with a real epidemic – largely because they had invested a lot of time in the game, and did not want to be killed off.

David Robson

Media Partners