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Videogames for volcanoes

Chateaubelair, a community near La Soufrière volcano Chateaubelair, a community near La Soufrière volcano Lara Mani
10 Mar
A videogame may help prepare a small Caribbean island for a potential disaster

St Vincent, a small Caribbean island, last saw a major volcanic eruption in 1979. There were no casualties that time, but the volcano has a deadly history. In 1901, an eruption killed around 1,500 people on the island.

From time to time, La Soufrière, the island’s most active volcano, reminds the islanders it’s still there.

Ten years ago, La Soufrière released a sulphurous haze across the island over a hazy period.

‘People put these two things together and came up with the conclusion that the volcano was acting up. The sulfur smell is unusual since the wind direction is such that most of the smell from the fumaroles at the summit of the volcano gets blown out to sea and is usually only smelt by a few residents on the eastern flank of the volcano,’ noted Richard Roberston in a report for the island’s Seismic Research Unit.

The long gaps between eruptions meant that local knowledge about the volcano had dwindled. It’s a problem the island addresses with an annual awareness week.

This year a new resource, a videogame developed at Plymouth University, will help improve preparedness for volcanic eruptions.

‘The idea came out of studies on the eruption of Montserrat that found people struggled to understand preparedness advice for volcanic eruptions,’ says Lara Mani, who has been developing the game.

‘The game would be used for outreach events,’ she says. ‘It focuses on historical records, and people’s accounts of the 1979 eruption while allowing people to explore the island,’ she adds.

view2Scenes from the game’s development [Image: Lara Mani/Plymouth University]

There’s no particular objective in the game, but while freely exploring a virtual St Vincent, the player meets challenges connected to volcanic hazards.

La Soufrière has three main hazards: the eruption itself, ash clouds, and lahars.

‘At the end of the game, there are analytics that record how the player moved through the game, and how much information they picked up along the way,’ says Mani. ‘This is an up and coming  area for games.’ Previous games used to teach hazard awareness have been in 2D, but Mani’s game provides a 3D visualisation.

The game’s first trial will be in two weeks’ time at St Vincent Volcano Week. ‘Previous games have never followed up impacts, but we’ll be doing a survey afterwards,’ adds Mani. ‘The game is mainly aimed at children. The saying in hazard awareness is the best way to educate is to reach the children who educate the parents.’

 A crowdfunded campaign to make the game available for free online will start in June.

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