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UpRiver game aids flooding prediction

Members of Emerson’s Engagement Game Lab recently traveled to Zambia to test UpRiver, a game the lab created that is designed to better predict major flooding along the Zambezi River—and hopefully save lives.

Flooding is a recurring issue in Zambia, which has seen at least two major flood disasters in the past four years, including one that killed 131 people in Zambia, Angola, and Namibia in 2009.

Many residents in high-risk areas do not even realize floods can be predicted. The Engagement Game Lab hopes UpRiver will change that.

“UpRiver is more of an intervention in hopes of creating a good change,” said Stephen Walter, managing director of the Engagement Game Lab. “There’s no reason [these deaths] should have happened.”



A girl in Zambia tests UpRiver, a game to help flooding prediction created by Emerson's Engagement Game Lab. (Courtesy photo)

UpRiver was designed in cooperation with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and the Zambian Red Cross, which works directly with people affected by floods.

The multi-phase game is composed of a physical and digital portion.

“We wanted to make a game that got people thinking about how computer models enter into their lives and how they can be trusted,” said Eric Gordon, executive director of the Engagement Game Lab, who is also associate professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts.

The physical portion of UpRiver uses water, cups, sponges, dice, and beans as a medium to teach Zambians about flooding.

The cups of water represent the level of the river. Water is then added and subtracted from the cups with sponges. Players learn how to predict the final level of the water.

Designed for use with a mobile phone, the digital portion has players gather, predict, and report the current and future levels of the Zambezi River.

First, players earn game currency by reporting the water level, weather, and other real-time information about their local area. They can earn more by placing bets about future conditions, according to the Engagement Game Lab website.

“The further out their predictions, and more accurate their guesses, the larger the reward,” the website said.

“Play is a powerful force for learning. In serious realms of public life play doesn’t seem to belong. We don’t think that’s productive,” Walter said.

At the end of the sessions, the players who made the most accurate flooding predictions were rewarded with chocolate.

“A secret to a successful game is a chocolate bar,” he said with a laugh.

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