“When I played the game, I saw those clouds all over again”

I’m not one to make New Year Resolutions but here is one: up-date my blog more. So here is my first post of the year!

Recently, I’ve been listening back through recordings and watching the videos taken during my fieldwork in St. Vincent last year. During one of my adult sessions in the northern town of Fancy (in close proximity to the La Soufriere volcano), the participants began to talk openly about their experiences of the 1979 eruption. It was a compelling session to sit through as the group remembered, together, the events during the beginning of the eruption.

“I woke up and there was a man yelling in the street ‘Wake up! Wake up! La Soufriere erupting!’ First thing I did, run for my radio” one of the participants recalled. “I remember seeing a cloud of smoke rolling down the mountain, it was scary. When I played the game, I saw those clouds all over again”

Hazard Training Pyroclastic Flows 2

Screen shot from St. Vincent’s Volcano game showing visualisations of pyroclastic flows on St. Vincent.

Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say the game had invoked memories of their personal experience of 1979. During the very early stages of my fieldwork on St. Vincent, I’d demonstrated the game with some key stakeholders on the island. One of the members of the group explained to me that watching the visualisation of the 1979 eruption and hearing the sounds again reminded him of how it felt to be there, watching the eruption unfold before him.

Although the game was not intentionally designed to refresh memories of the 1979 eruption, it is not a completely unexpected ‘side-effect’. Video games are well known for invoking behavioral changes and emotions – some of you may be familiar with the debate on video games and violence.

The 1979 eruption was a major event in the lives of people on the island that saw a disruption to their routine for months in the aftermath. Further, it is often talked about in informal conversation, used as a marker in time and brought into the frame annually through outreach activities with communities across the island. Research suggests that a strong emotive experience, such as the 1979 eruption, supports memory encoding thus leading to the events becoming more memorable (LaBar & Cabeza, 2006; Howard-Jones et al, 2015). This simply means, the more emotive a situation you experience, (e.g. extreme happiness on your wedding day) the clearer, more accurate memory you have of the event.

In practice, this could mean that many of the islands residents, particularly those living close to La Soufriere at the time, may have very strong memories of the 1979 eruption and a good memory recall of the events. It might not seem surprising then that when provoked with realistic-looking visualisations reconstructing the eruption (especially when based on observations and accounts from the time), some of the participants express an emotional response and resurface vivid memories of these events.

However, this slightly unexpected outcome of the game, invoking strong memories of the 1979 event, means that a new use of the game could be exploited – the preservation of cultural heritage. This is something that, in the coming months, will be interesting to look at deeper but for now is an exciting prospect and potentially important in the design of future iterations of the game.