When natural disaster strikes, the human compulsion to help kicks into overdrive. News reports of people without homes, everything destroyed, and families lost breed a sense of sadness and compassion, and prompt an outpouring of financial generosity and volunteerism. Then the news cycle ends–or worse, the next disaster strikes elsewhere–and the white-hot attention paid to those in need fades.
The Rockaways, a long and narrow spit of land on the southern edge of the New York borough of Queens is one such place. With entire neighborhoods completely devastated by the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the Rockaways became a high-activity focal point following the storm. The images of Breezy Point, where homes were razed by fire, were used to illustrate the severity of damage in New York and stimulated the charitable tendencies of those watching.
Seven months later, however, and the media and the public have moved on, while area residents remain homeless, without power, or struggling with restoring and rebuilding. “Repair the Rockaways”, a new online game from New York agency Mother aims to bring attention back to the area, and more important, raise money that will go directly to the residents in need. The Farmville-style game built by Casserole Labs encourages people to donate bricks to the reconstruction of the area (and while not officially involved, Farmville’s creator Zynga condones the effort). For $20, a person can place a pile of bricks on an empty plot. For $100 you get a wall. For $400, you can build a virtual house. The initial goal is to raise $200,000. While the game is purely representative of the rebuilding efforts, it’s a novel way to visualize the scope of work required in the area. Proceeds go directly to Respond and Rebuild, a grassroots aid organization.
“We really need to rethink emergency response,” says Mother Partner Tom Webster of the game. “There are three phases, and in America people are really good at phase one, which is emergency rescue triage. People rally around the immediate issue of saving lives and getting people food and shelter. But once that’s gone, people move on. But there will be thousands of people who will be homeless and will be going through the bureaucracy.”
For Mother, the project grew from a personal place. When Sandy hit New York, the agency was affected on many levels: , a major installation project it had created for Microsoft was flooded and destroyed, and the homes of many staff members were damaged. At the same time, reporters from Animal New York, an online urban magazine that operates as an arm of the agency, were covering the storm as it unfolded and saw firsthand the devastation in the Rockaways. They also saw how ineffective many of the relief efforts were. People from the agency wanted to help and rally around the cause, so the agency put out a challenge: The best idea to help the area would received $25,000 and the agency’s support.
The winning idea came from creatives Andy Dao and Stacey Smith, who were inspired by a video they saw from directors Alex Braverman and Poppy de Villeneuve. The video, which uses a simple voice mail from a Rockaway resident and friend of the directors, encapsulated how personal and emotional each story of survival was. In this spirit, “Repair the Rockaways” also includes video stories from area residents, who are represented as characters in the game.
Webster says the entire focus of the game is to bring a community-based approach to disaster fundraising efforts. “When you donate your money to the Red Cross, you have no idea where that money is going. It might not go to the Rockaways, it might go to another initiative or to someone’s salary,” he says, noting that Respond and Rebuild’s direct connection with the communities it supports is why they chose them to receive raised funds. The game platform, he says, also allows for Mother to continue telling the story of the area now that the news cameras are gone. “What we’re doing is going back to the Rockaways each month and revisiting these people to see firsthand and tell stories firsthand about what’s improving, what’s not working. And we’ll email everyone who’s donated each month updates so they can see how their money has helped.”
Having been a recipient of disaster funds from FEMA himself, Webster says the game is also a response to the arbitrary and obscure process of government support. “I’m really interested in how communities can prepare. The East Coast will get hit by another hurricane. The Midwest will be hit by another tornado,” says Webster noting that aside from financial goals, efforts like “Repair the Rockaways” can serve as a way to build a volunteer community. “If we can get people to sign up beforehand so that they can be emailed when disaster hits, like a database of companies and people willing to help rebuild, we could activate locally very quickly and fend for ourselves. Because the government won’t be there quickly.”
While there are some lofty notions behind a simple community-building game, Webster knows that his agency’s efforts are really focused on the micro level. “We’re definitely not changing the world, but we’ll help a few people.”