The COVID-19 Cataclysm, or Preparing for Crises through Games

April 23, 2020 / by Elizabeth M H Newbury, Director of the Serious Games Initiative at The Wilson Center

Category: Community, Guest Blog Post

When I imagine world-shattering events, I think of 2010. I’m not talking about a natural disaster or pandemic. I mean World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, when a giant dragon named Deathwing swept over the game, breaking the world we had come to love pixel-by-pixel. For the non-WoW players out there, you missed out on how eerie it was to explore a game world you had been playing for six years transformed in a full-on Armageddon. A broken Earth.

But this is not the way our cataclysm has gone. The landscape has changed, not in dragonfire, but in a sneeze and cough. Now I hear echoes of a different WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade. There, the heroes of Azeroth were told in a much less-long-winded way by the big bad of that expansion, Illidan Stormrage, “You are not prepared.”

The same could be said for our real-world cataclysm, COVID-19.

In the field of educational games, this was not for lack of trying. Games have tackled disaster preparedness, especially in natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, informed by lived-experience, research, and a desire to ensure we were more prepared next time. And they are not only about building step-by-step responses like instruction manuals; board games like Cards Against Calamity — a game the Wilson Center developed with 1st Playable Productions, the Environmental Law Institute and support from NOAA — highlight that there are multiple pathways to both building responses to a disaster, as well as ensuring we are building resilience to help mitigate the next disaster

For COVID-19, I am struck by how we could have been more prepared both in what tools we had available to us to understand what we are going through, and in adapting to the “new normal” we find ourselves in.

Playing at Pandemic Science, Policy

There are a number of existing games that can be used as learning tools about the COVID-19 crisis, or are being developed as such. I wrote about several of them at the beginning of the U.S. response. Additional resources (such as these from PAX Sims) are becoming available as the crisis continues.

No single game can do everything, but to tackle a pandemic, educational outreach falls into two approaches. First, there is a need to learn about the science of disease and transmission. I previously highlighted You Make Me Sick!: Bacteria and Viruses Learning Game, funded through a grant reward from the Department of Education, as one potential model for addressing this; another game that may serve as a model is Alpha Beat Cancer. Through storytelling and creative mechanics, these games make concepts such as disease transmission, mutation, and treatment accessible, engaging and fun. They allow the player to be an active participant at a molecular level — something we cannot do in reality — and do things like guide the pathogen to the respiratory system or steer white blood cells to fight cancer. They build understanding by making science come to life

Without this baseline of scientific understanding, it is hard to appreciate the scope of policy options in response to a pandemic or be certain about what policies to enforce. The newly-launched Outbreak Squad, funded through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, uses historical food outbreaks as villains to illustrate cross-sector policy options. The game not only shows an array of policy options and what their individual (abstracted) impact may be, but also demonstrates how balancing them is vital to outbreak response.

It is this duality that is important to building a resilient response. Resilience is a powerful buzzword in the policy community, evoking a combination of both being prepared and capable of springing back from everything from a cyberattack to a natural disaster. Resilience often indicates infrastructure preparedness, clear processes, and cross-sector collaboration that supports a common ethos of wanting to be able to respond to and diminish the impacts of a threat, as well as get back to standard operating procedure.

In this case, it means both being prepared for an outbreak in a multilateral way that brings together research, education, healthcare response and regulatory enforcement. This combination is a needed narrative in any games being developed to highlight the policy response to threats like a global pandemic. At the same time, a truly resilient response requires knowing not just what we can do, but why we are doing it – and thus a greater need for scientific education as part of building preparedness.

Future Directions for Resilience Through Games

Returning to the taunt of Illidan Stormrage, there may be ways we could have been more prepared for COVID-19 that go beyond game content. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we should be taking notes on broader considerations of how games can be mobilized to create a more resilient future.

One of the quickest responses to COVID-19 was gamified tools to tackle the epidemic itself — not in an abstract sense, but in a way that directly supported researchers. Platforms like Foldit and Eterna demonstrate how you can mobilize gamification to crowdsource solutions for a pandemic. These platforms allow you to manipulate the proteins or RNA of the novel coronavirus, distributing this task to a broad audience. As solutions come back, this empowers researchers to test different models and — we hope — develop a vaccine sooner.

It shows that educational games do not need to be confined to the classroom. Which is good, particularly in a situation where the classroom has been moved home. Another rapid response was making learning tools available: when the crisis hit, the Institute of Education Science at the U.S. Department of Education put together a list of 85 educational technologies funded across government agencies that are now available online at no cost until the end of the school year.

Making these learning tools available is a high call to action. COVID-19 has illustrated that the assumptions we make in developing educational games needs to be re-evaluated. For example, we need to consider how we can develop games that can be used easily and seamlessly by a non-expert audience. Think of parents teaching children at home, who may not be subject-matter experts nor know how to apply a lesson plan. We need to make their lives easier.

Crucially, the pandemic has renewed conversations about the digital divide and unequal access to resources at home. These issues are not new to COVID-19 by any means, but it does need critical attention. A potential model for how to design for low-resource situations is Yale University and Parsons The New School for Design’s Humans vs. Mosquitoes, a scalable game that can be played as a game of tag to a printable board game. Another example, although not a game, is the Smithsonian Institution’s Journey through an Exploding Star which shows how you can design a learning module for everything from VR to a browser experience. This shows that designing multiple ways to experience the learning material does not have to limit the technology used, but does make the material available for multiple means of access. Game designers should be thinking of ways to innovate in this space

If we are to be prepared for future crises, we must be taking notes on how we were caught unprepared this time around. We must look for ways that we can empower audiences across the nation in order to help weather storms — both of the natural disaster type, as well as the pandemic — so we are prepared in the event of another cataclysm. Otherwise we are our own worst enemy.

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