The United Nations Stop Disasters! game puts you in the role of an Emergency Manager. Time after time, your careful planning runs headlong into utter catastrophe. In this disaster simulator, your mistakes will result in digital damages, injuries, and deaths.
When I introduce the game out to new players, they all start with the brash overconfidence of, "How hard can it be to stop a tsunami?" Then I watch them place row upon row of waterfront housing, or run out of funds because they spent it all on expensive breakwaters. They get an early-warning system, but forget that orderly evacuations take education, communication, and notification.
When the simulation runs its course, even buildings in the green-coded low-risk zone on the top of a cliff have been devastated, and and every hotel on bright-red high-risk beach reduced to rubble. They're shame-faced by the imaginary newspaper threatening an investigation into their incompetence, and humiliated by the rubber-stamped FAIL slapped across the screen.
Indignant, they go, "Hurricanes! Hurricanes are easy to prepare for. Been living with storms since I was knee-high." So they click around diligently securing heavy objects, securing maritime industries, and dutifully upgrading homes with storm windows, when they suddenly discover they've run out of money and haven't even put out the evacuation route signs yet. They grumble in resignation as the storm arrives, and clueless citizens remain in their mix of fully-upgraded shelters and ramshackle huts.
"Fires!" they exclaim. "Wildfires are a simple disaster! Clad everything in metal, stick it by a water supply, and remove anything that can burn," they huff. Protect the water tanks. Upgrade the mines. Start burning fire breaks around all those scattered homes. And more fire breaks. And more. And... And the clock runs out, and a fire rages through, destroying an entire neighbourhood they hadn't gotten around to preparing yet.
This is about when they start complaining I've introduced them to the Kobyashi Maru of disaster simulators, an unwinnable scenario where they'll need to be as audacious as Star Trek's Captain Kurt to successfully save their city from doom. Confidence lost, they start actually reading the Key Facts that pop up as they uncover new risk mitigation strategies instead of impatiently clicking them away. They carefully scout the risk-map for the ideal place to situate the school full of vulnerable children, and ruthlessly demolish sub-standard building stock. Chagrined, they drop the difficulty level, opting for a bigger budget, smaller map, and reduced mission objectives.
Finally, success! A perfectly-planned mitigation strategy with no damage, no injuries, and not a single digital soul lost. The generated news article finally stops threatening investigation and suspension, instead praising their hard-working Emergency Manager. The level of pride in this hard-won achievement lasts just as long as it takes to submit the gold metal for a high score, before being crushed by the epic successes of other players around the world.
Stop Disasters! has an unintuitive design, clunky graphics, and is surprisingly good at representing the real-world trade-offs of planning for disaster. The costs of retrofitting buildings in the earthquake scenario makes you reflect on why we don't bulldoze the whole place and start from scratch, while the forecast modelling computer is comedically out of reach of a municipal budget. The sprawling town in the floodplain is salvageable, but new development gets packed into the safety of the hillsides.
Time and time again, you're left making hard choices between demolishing buildings or repairing them, accepting losses and trying to develop in a more organized manner. More often than you can count, best-laid plans will go awry by a cliff-scaling tsunami, landslides down the hillsides, or a bush fire that pops up in the middle of a carefully-isolated development. An afternoon spent playing the Stop Disasters! simulator will make it more clear than the news ever will: everywhere has catastrophes. No where is safe, so peace of mind comes from learning how to mitigate the ones that take place where you live.
But I should warn you: Stop Disasters! is seriously, unexpectedly addictive.
Want to learn more about real-life disasters? Learn about landslide mechanics, strike-slip earthquakes, or subduction zone earthquakes. Have a story to tell about your efforts as an Emergency Manager? Chime in! Need a cheerful story to let go of the constant doom and gloom? Try an adorable space-suit design, or relax into beautiful satellite imagery. For another science-themed game, check out the Kerbal Space Program.