Fulbright Scholar Ups the Game against Climate Change

Researcher Uses Games to Educate People about Looming Natural Disasters

To fully understand the impacts of a changing climate, you have to witness it first-hand.

This is what Luis Graciano Velazquez would say to those who still debate the validity and urgency of climate change. A Fulbright Scholar, Graciano is motivated to make a difference in developing parts of the world, where news about public health threats doesn’t always reach the people who are most at risk.

As a student in ComArtSci’s Information & Media Ph.D. program, Graciano hopes to deliver life-saving media to communities like his own. Growing up in Agua Dulce, Veracruz, near the rainforests of Mexico, Graciano watched as natural disasters uprooted countless families and individuals. At the height of each crisis, people struggled to get the information they needed.

Now, Graciano is turning the power of narrative on natural disasters by researching what happens during a crisis and communication’s role, with the goal of protecting people from devastating losses.

“What is the government telling you? What is the media telling you? What is information that I can use in order to weather the storm?” said Graciano. “By seeing those dynamics, I came up with an idea.”

Understanding the People Most Affected

Working under the Fulbright Scholarship, Graciano spends a lot of time listening to true stories and eye-witness accounts from the people in Mexico. He collects qualitative research from those who find themselves in the path of hurricanes and other natural disasters.

“I’m more interested in talking to the people, getting materials, looking at testimonials,” said Graciano. “Having someone who can actually speak the language in that context is extremely important so you can communicate and be able to have a rapport with them.”

He plans to use this insight to educate others about what it means to be in the eye of the storm, providing actions they can take to safeguard their homes and their lives.

Manuel Chavez, Ph.D., director of the Information and Media Ph.D. Program, served as a mentor to Graciano. He said Graciano brings constant curiosity to his work, and he is eager to learn more about theories and methods for using communication to educate people.

In narrowing the focus of his scholarship, the search for interactive communication led Graciano to an unlikely solution. Video games.

“That curiosity has allowed him to take courses in other disciplines that contribute to the understanding of society and human interaction with video games,” said Chavez. “But more importantly is the fact that he is not afraid to learn field research methods and engage in the actual research work. Because of that experience, Luis now is interested in the serious games as they relate to crisis during natural disasters.”

Building upon a passion for games, Graciano found a way to apply their interactive model of storytelling to a global health need.

The Gamification of Disaster Preparedness

Whether it’s a forest fire, a flood, or a category 5 hurricane, Graciano understands what it takes to protect people from the powerful forces of nature.

“The main focus is definitely crisis communications, and having people learn how to prepare for an emergency,” said Graciano, who offered his help as an interpreter during the Hurricane Maria project. “In this case, one of the main focuses that we are working with is natural disasters, with climate changes and all these big issues that we have right now.”

It all goes back to communication and how narratives can be used to educate, inform and prepare diverse groups of people. Graciano has been involved with many research projects and studies, ranging from identity formation and crisis communication to the analysis and creation of video games.

Now, he hopes to combine the interdisciplinary knowledge to produce life-saving experiences. In a series of careful steps, he’s working to design a board game that will educate people about crisis communications during a natural disaster, which he then hopes to convert into a video game.

“First, you have to come up with something simple like a board game. After the board game, you can build up to a video game that has the same elements,” said Graciano. “Either you can do something that is very narrative-driven like a story that you are witnessing, or you can be more involved using something that you actually have to work with and where you have a little bit more of a mechanical and more logical engagement.”

Much like the popular board games “Pandemic” or “Forbidden Island,” the new game could be used around the world to prepare people for the dangerous impacts of climate change – and perhaps even save them from catastrophe.

A Fulbright Scholar in a New Land

Graciano said the Department of Media and Information has provided him with unique opportunities to pursue all of his interests and realize their combined potential.

When he searched for top U.S. programs in communication and media studies, the office of MSU International Studies and Programs referred him to Dr. Chavez. Upon hearing about his professional and academic experience, Chavez instantly recognized the unique perspective Graciano would bring to ComArtSci.

“I knew that he would have a successful learning experience at ComArtSci and in our doctoral program,” said Chavez. “Having students and scholars from other countries is always an excellent opportunity for ComArtSci and the entire campus to learn about other cultures and societies.”

From the beginning, Chavez has served as a mentor, helping Graciano to find his footing in a new country, a new culture and a new language. Chavez now serves as his advisor, instructor and work supervisor.

“Mr. Graciano has been an excellent ambassador, who takes any opportunity to underline and showcase the culture and societal traits of his home country,” said Chavez. “It is not uncommon that during meetings he brings authentic Mexican food that he actually cooks; needless to say that those meetings are very popular.”

Chavez said he’s confident that this Fulbright Scholar will contribute significantly to his chosen field. To fulfill his scholarship, Graciano will return to Latin America and share his experiences with the local community and with the academic circles in Mexico.

“Luis has also worked in crisis communication and made a connection with serious gaming that is expanding his academic horizons,” said Chavez. “His academic work on video games will be seminal for Mexico and Latin America, which lacks empirical research on that area.”

By Melissa Priebe

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