Slave to the Game

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Sandia National Laboratories scientists are developing a lifelike video game that helps first responders experience the drama and adrenaline of a disaster.

Sandia, along with the University of Southern California's GamePipe Laboratory, is one year into a three-year project to develop the game, called "Ground Truth." It's meant to supplement or even substitute for the tabletop exercise, the classic but sometimes cumbersome means of exercising for disasters.

The simulation opens with a mock newscast describing an emergency. In the current version, a simulated collision between a speeding car and a tanker truck that results in a cloud of chlorine being released in the middle of a city.

Then a lifelike aerial view of the hypothetical city appears, with a green cloud looming over the scene. It's up to the players to direct the response using the police and fire departments, hazardous materials crews, medical personnel and road barricades.

While the players scramble to dispatch the crews, a ticker tracks the death toll in the upper right corner and tense music plays in the background. The goal is to save as many people as possible.

"It has a little bit of a gaming adrenaline rush to it," said Jim Morrissey, terrorist preparedness coordinator for Alameda County Emergency Medical Services. "I think it has the potential to be a great tool for all multi-disciplined emergency responders," he said.

"They'll be more experienced than they otherwise would have been because they've played it, albeit virtually, but it's better than nothing," said computer scientist Donna Djordjevich, leader of the project at Sandia's Livermore campus.

Other virtual emergencies and twists will be added as the game is developed.

"I'm tending to focus on these weapons of mass destruction, large-scale events," Djordjevich said.

She also plans to explore emotional aspects of the game. For example, responders who lose a colleague may become distraught and less effective or begin questioning the player's authority.