Professors develop Cascadia 9.0 video game

New earthquake simulator game emerges out of study on distaster preparedness among young people

Screenshot of gameplay
Courtesy of Lewis & Clark

Cascadia 9.0, an earthquake preparedness game developed by faculty and students at Lewis & Clark, was recently released to the public.

The game was developed by Associate Professor of Geological Sciences Liz Safran, Associate Professor of Psychology Erik Nilsen, Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies, Bryan Sebok, alongside a large team of students.

The research team was interested in finding out what motivates people to prepare for disaster. She initially gathered the team in 2016, and their research evolved into the development of the first iteration of an earthquake preparedness pilot game and study in 2018.

“The idea is that maybe capitalizing on something that young adults like to do anyhow — play games — might be one way to raise consciousness about it and get people who have an awful lot of resources,” Nilsen said. “It would be good for everyone if young adults were involved in preparing and thinking about what to do after the (earthquake).”

Safran became interested in the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the particular earthquake risk it poses after teaching a class on natural disasters and realizing how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is. The Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches from southern British Columbia to Mendocino, Calif., and has the potential to produce a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, named “The Big One.” The last earthquake of this magnitude was in 1700 and geological evidence shows earthquakes of this kind recur every 400 to 600 years. 

“The more I started to wrap my head around (our seismic hazard), the more important it seemed to me to devote my attention to this,” Safran said. “It’s not a straight-up geology problem, so that’s when I started enlisting friends and colleagues in psychology, media studies and computer science.” 

After receiving a four-year grant of $559,617 from the National Science Foundation in 2019 to further their research, the team began working on what would become the Cascadia 9.0 game. The earthquake preparedness study aims to understand the behavior and reasoning of young people to prepare for an earthquake and the effectiveness of interactive environments in promoting problem-solving and behavior adoption versus observational learning approaches. 

In the game, the player, who starts as the character Zelda, searches for their dog Tsu who has escaped during the initial earthquake. In the search for Tsu, the player encounters situations they have to survive: Gas leaks, aftershocks, poor sanitation and lack of drinking water are among the many problems encountered.

Safran heads the earthquake preparedness study. Her curiosity in this issue grew from an interest in emergency messaging and the way advertisements and brochures framed the issue of earthquake preparedness. Safran and Nilsen noticed that many advertisements targeted either older audiences or children themselves. Those two audiences leave out the group that might be most valuable in dealing earthquakes — young adults.

The three problems that face the player in the Cascadia 9.0 game are shelter, water and sanitation — along with avoiding injury — are essential aspects of disaster preparedness. These problems were chosen as a way to separate the problem-solving skills that are taught within the game and other problems that the web-surfing group would run into.

“The game nicely challenges you and makes you aware that there’s some danger, and lets you see various ways of solving the problems that the player has to solve in that first game about shelter, water, sanitation and avoiding injury,” Drake said. “Each of those problems can be solved in three different ways, and you will do each one (in) different ways (at) different levels.”

While practicing skills and problem-solving through video games might not be as effective as physically practicing the same skills, their study was effective in stimulating confidence in earthquake preparedness and information seeking, especially in the short term. 

They also worked with local emergency managers to find the most important aspects of disaster preparedness to focus on and to ensure that all solutions presented in the game were accurate to what safety experts would recommend. Emergency managers emphasized that there is not a particular item to have in a preparedness kit and that it is essential for people to cooperate with their neighbors.

“The people who are going to come to your aid are the people who are around you, and not the emergency managers or the fire department because they’re going to be managing the worst events,” Safran said.

The study also found that the Cascadia 9.0 game was successful in making people feel more competent and prepared in the short-term, and increasing interest in seeking out further resources and opportunities to prepare. Additionally, while people’s motivation to deal with disasters decreases over time, their sense of competence in disaster preparedness and managing disaster does not. 

Overall, study participants who played the video game felt better prepared and more confident in dealing with a potential earthquake than those who did not. Many of the skills are applicable to a wide variety of disasters as well, as they emphasize good sanitation practices, water purification methods and other safe practices.

The team plans to continue this research through the development of a few additional minigames to answer additional specific research questions over the next year and a half. They also to eventually create a real game that both addresses the research question and is fun to play.

The game, playable online at, is made with the game engine Unity and was written, planned, designed and coded by the four faculty members and a total of 55 students over the past three years. Some students involved in the study through the John S. Rogers Science Program during summers. Students are also involved in game design in the Cascadia 9.0 project group in Drake’s software development class.

“The design was often a collaborative thing with all four of us faculty members and students,” Drake said. “Both the students who were computer science-types who would be involved in writing the game and the psychology students who were more involved in the experiments and analyzing the data that comes out of the experiments and having people play the games (were involved).” 

There is a pressing need for student involvement and support in this project. Students with programming experience in Unity looking to further their skills in game development, students interested in running focus groups and collecting data, and students interested in Blender modeling are all integral to continuing the study’s research. Students interested in getting involved can reach out to Safran by email at

Those who would like further resources for earthquake and disaster preparedness can visit the website of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management at The website has resources to find the nearest emergency information centers after earthquakes, find community meetings to join and participate in Neighborhood Emergency Team training.

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