It’s a fact of life: disasters happen almost every day. Somewhere in the world a house is on fire, a city is being devastated by a storm, or maybe even an explosion has gone off. Today, these disasters tend to generate extensive social media coverage. Take for example Hurricane Sandy, where more than half-a-million Instagram pictures and 20 million tweets were posted during the disaster. The Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami the year before saw 100,000 tweets posted per minute. Disaster-affected communities are now more likely than ever to be on social media, which dramatically multiplies the amount of user-generated crisis information posted during disasters. Welcome to the age of Big Data—Big Crisis Data.
Humanitarian organizations and emergency management responders are not prepared to deal with the volume and velocity of crisis information. This presents a real problem because social media can save lives. Indeed, recent empirical studies have shown that an important percentage of social media messages include valuable, informative and actionable content for disaster response. These often include information about people’s needs (food, water, shelter, first-aid, etc.) and even the location of trapped or injured people. The problem that humanitarians and disaster responders face, however, is to quickly find this life-saving information amidst the vast ocean of social media chatter.
Now consider this: More than half a billion people worldwide play computer and video games for at least an hour a day. This amounts to more than 3.5 billion hours per week. In the US alone, over two-thirds of Americans play video games, spending more than four million hours per week online. In fact, more than five million gamers in the US spend over 40 hours per week playing video games. The average young person will spend 10,000 hours playing video games by the age of 21. In 2012 the average US citizen spent 142 hours playing video games, up from 131 in 2011. In early 2013, World of Warcraft (WoW) reached 9.6 million subscribers worldwide, a population larger than Sweden. Today, WoW reports close to one million people logging onto their servers simultaneously. The online game League of Legends has more than 12 million unique users every day while more than 20 million users log on to Xbox Live every day. Facebook games have more than 56 million daily players.
What if these gamers had been invited to search through the information haystack of 20 million tweets posted during Hurricane Sandy? Lets say gamers were asked to tag which tweets were urgent. This simple task would directly support disaster responders and would take no longer than 10 seconds per tweet. Assuming that all of their volunteers were working 24/7 with no breaks, the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) would have taken more than 100 hours or close to 5 days, to process these tweets. In contrast, the 4 million gamers playing WoW (excluding China) would only need 90 seconds to do this. The 12 million gamers on League of Legends would have taken just 30 seconds. Facebook gamers would take less than 7 seconds.
Some of the numbers proposed above may seem unrealistic, but there is absolutely no denying that drawing on this vast untapped resource would significantly accelerate the processing of crisis information during major disasters. Video-gamers worldwide can thus play a huge role in supporting disaster response operations without ever leaving their homes. Now you may be wondering: what form would this humanitarian support actually take?
The work would be broken down into micro tasks. These micro tasks usually involve the user looking at a tweet or photo shared on a social networking platform and tagging this information accordingly. For example, gamers could tag all tweets that are relevant for disaster response. They could also tag images if they depict disaster damage. In addition, savvy gamers could geo-tag tweets and photos, just like volunteers with the Digital Humanitarian Network have done in the past. This may seem like little from an individual perspective, but with tens of thousands of gamers doing this in real-time, it would be possible to create a live Crisis Map of the disaster area in just seconds. Crisis Maps are used by humanitarian and rescue organizations to inform disaster response operations and even to save lives. Take for example the Haiti-Earthquake, the first example of this concept at work. One of the most recent examples of micro tasking for disaster relief is the United Nation’s response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines. 
But what’s in it for the game companies and their users? What incentives would these companies have to spend some time and money on integrating disaster tweets into their gaming environments? Well, we believe that gamers-for-good would bring about a social revolution. First, let’s consider the typical stereotypes of gamers. Society considers gamers to be lazy, out of touch and perhaps even irresponsible. Gamers spend billions of hours playing video games instead of contributing to society and making the world a better place. To be sure, many gamers out there say that the biggest negative of gaming is the difficulty in convincing others that playing online games is actually not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. In the end however, game companies would appreciate a better reputation outside of the gaming industry because this would mean more users and increased sales.
So now imagine if playing World of Warcraft (WoW) translated into contributions of millions of hours towards humanitarian response. Add the ability to show off your personal “Online Volunteer Score,” and the reputation of gamers and game companies could change overnight. Think of the marketing potential for the video game companies if they can say that playing their amazing games also gives people the opportunity to help out in the real world of disaster response. Not only would this news attract new customers, it would be a source of new content for current players. For example, the free WoW starter edition can include this volunteer feature; the work itself can earn players cosmetic rewards and there could be leader boards to encourage healthy competition. The players will be happy, the game companies will be happy, and above all, those who received timely aid will be happy (and safe).
All it takes is a game developer to make the first move. This is something that would not only significantly differentiate them in a highly competitive environment, but also expand their user base. Disaster volunteer work might also attract many non-traditional gamers such as the growing number of digital humanitarian volunteers, older generations, and other people typically uninterested in online games. Additionally, consider how many younger gamers would prefer your game because it gives them the chance of being the hero in real-life. Combine the amount of media coverage that disasters generate with the already large presence that video games have in popular media, place emphasis on user-friendliness and meaningful contributions, and you have yourself a revolution in global citizen engagement and humanitarian action.
Our use of WoW as an example is not random but deliberate. While the above scenario should appeal to the entire video game industry, our focus on Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMORPG’s) would not only benefit that specific industry via new content but also would serve as the perfect platform to support this type of work. While any type of game can introduce a short mini-game for this humanitarian work, we believe that an MMORPG would have the ability to make it seem the most natural.
Let’s say a disaster strikes Los Angeles. WoW could use open source map data to generate an in-game version of the city and surroundings. This would help gamers gain a basic understanding of the geography of the affected area. Individual players would then receive quests in which they complete the tasks mentioned above and maybe slay some monsters on the side. Then, to create an interactive feel for the player, the map mentioned earlier could be updated in real-time to incorporate the data which is being sorted (possibly even including the activities of local response). After all the hard work is done, WoW could reward participants with a battle pet, a piece of transmog gear, or maybe even a commemorative mount (in-game rewards that would not make a player any more powerful). Using a bit of creativity the possibilities are really endless: who knows what unique methods game developers can come up with to incorporate this work.
WoW also sports the most humanitarian-oriented player base. The players combined to donate $1.9 million for Japan Earthquake relief and $2.3 million to victims of Superstorm Sandy.[16, 17] No other gaming community has expressed such interest in this type humanitarian aid. With the Internet Response League, gamers can also donate their game time. Finally, the fact that Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of WoW, has been an extremely progressive game-developer, with such innovations such as the real money auction house in Diablo 3, makes our proposal perfectly plausible. Again though, this is in no way meant to alienate other games. Remember that with a bit of creativity these types of tasks can be implemented into any game. Facebook in particular is a massive platform that could create some very unique player experiences and results. Finally, something like cross-game or cross-game-community competition could harbor some interesting results. Which community do you think would be able to provide more volunteer help, WoW, Steam or Xbox live?
We at Internet Response League want the future to be a world full of socially-conscious gamers. We envision this world to be one in which gamers can be called upon to help solve the world’s problems. Realizing this vision is far easier than many realize; it only take some imagination and foresight. The possibilities and potential for the future of disaster response are endless. One day, players will actually be able to guide response efforts on the ground based on the information processed via online games. As good as getting to the next level in WoW or other games may already make you feel, imagine if getting to the next level translated into real-time actions that could save lives and mitigate suffering during disasters. We believe that that the Internet Response League is the perfect first step.
Want to help out? Do you have suggestions on how to turn this vision into reality? Want to join the Internet Response League or stay informed of our progress? Have contacts in the gaming industry? Are you a coder or gamer with extra time? Do you simply want to show your support for IRL? Then please contact us at “firstname.lastname@example.org” and/or leave note in the comments section below. Thank you!
This highly recommended TED talk is a powerful call for video games to integrate real life challenges.
1. 2. Meier, Patrick (1 April 2013). “Automatically Extracting Disaster-Relevant Information from Social Media”. iRevolution. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
3. Meier, Patrick (9 April 2013). “Humanitarianism in the Network Age: Groundbreaking Study”. iRevolution. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
4. Meier, Patrick (17 December 2012). “Debating the Value of Tweets For Disaster Response (Intelligently)”. iRevolution. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
5. 7. 8. McGonical, Jane. “We spend 3 billion hours a week as a planet playing videogames. Is it worth it? How could it be MORE worth it?”. TED Conversations. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
6. Agnello, Anthony John (15 December 2012). “US id the World’s Biggest Video Game Market with 165 Million Players”. Digital Trends. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
9. Stevenson, Veronis Suhler. “Estimated Time spent* playing video games in the U.S. from 2002 to 2012** (in hours per person per year)”. Statista. Retrieved 5/10/2013.
10. 11. “Player Activity Graph Past 6 Months”. WarcraftRealms.com. Retrieved 3/15/2013.
12. Tryndamere (11 October 2012). “League of Legends Community Infographic”. Riot Games. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
13. O’Neill, Nick (22 September 2010). “10 Mind Blowing Facebook Games Statistics”. AllFacebook. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
14. Meier, Patrick (2 July 2012). “How Crisis Mapping Saved Lives in Haiti”. National Geographic. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
15. Meier, Patrick (8 December 2012). “How the UN Used Social Media in Response to Typhoon Pablo (Updated)”. iRevolution. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
16. (10 January 2013). “Cinder Kitten Raises More Than $2.3 Million”. Blizzard Entertainment. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
17. (3 August 2011). “Cenarion Hatchling Raises More Than $1.9 Million for Japan Earthquake Relief”. Blizzard Entertainment. Retrieved 5/28/2013.
A special thanks to our graphic design friend Mike Manzi for the amazing logo.