Sandia develops strategy game for cops and firefighters

A new real-time strategy game called Ground Truth helps train first responders to respond to major emergencies.

Jim Pointer isn't much of a gamer, but earlier this month he spent an intense 20 minutes coordinating an imaginary city's response to a toxic spill emergency, at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, USA.

He was playing a video game called Ground Truth, which is being developed as part of a three-year project by Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Southern California to create new ways of training police, firefighters and county officials to deal with cataclysmic events.

Ground Truth is what's known as a real-time strategy game, meaning that events on the computer screen progress in real-time, rather than turn-by-turn, said Donna Djordjevich, principal investigator on Sandia's Game Technology-Enhanced Simulation for Homeland Security project.

That makes the game more realistic. But it also puts the pressure on game players, who have little time to respond to emergencies.

Pointer, a medical director of Alameda County's Emergency Medical Services Agency, did OK for a first-time player. He moved police cars, deployed hazardous materials teams and managed medical collection points to try to contain the damage, all the while keeping watch for toxic clouds that could harm his operation.

Stilly, by game's end, thousands of people had lost their lives. Hardly an ideal outcome.

Pointer said that it took him a while to get used to the game play, and that his 58 year-old eyes often had a hard time finding game pieces. "After a while you've got to move the traffic barriers," he said. "I didn't even know there were barriers."

Still, he believes that the game is a good way to get people comfortable with the kind of decision-making process that goes on during emergency response. "I think it's got tremendous promise," he said. "You're having fun but also protecting our citizens against natural or man-made disaster. It's pretty cool."

Ground Truth was inspired by an unlikely predecessor: Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft III, which is a fantasy themed game of conquest. "If you look at the fact that there are Elves and Orcs battling each other, that doesn't really apply to police officers and firefighters," Djordjevich said. However, "Blizzard... have this philosophy where it's easy to learn but hard to master. That philosophy I wanted to carry on to the Ground Truth game."

Video game-style simulations have been used successfully in the military and for aeronautical training, but developers haven't had much luck creating compelling incident response games, Djordjevich said. "A lot of the production quality is pretty low and in addition they don't have the expertise in, say, scenario development." she said. "So they'll tackle the obvious part of incident response."

But with Sandia's deep expertise, the team believes it can develop richer, more realistic gameplay. "Over here we have a lot of systems analysts who spend their careers focusing on what are the complicated parts of an incident," she said.

Sandia, owned by Lockheed Martin, is best known as the place where the U.S. develops parts of its nuclear weapons. But the laboratory also runs some of the world's largest supercomputers which perform computationally intensive simulations in a range of areas.

Djordjevich, who's been a gamer since she started hogging her brother's Nintendo at age six, says that the game interface could be used for some of Sandia's other research, a simulation of investment planning tools, for example.

The gaming research has received US$1.8 million in funding, which means that Djordjevich will be fine-tuning Ground Truth until at least the end of 2009, but she is hoping that it could be further developed, either with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or with help from private industry.

A team of graduate students from the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering have also helped develop the game.

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