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The Great Flu: Pandemic Education for the Masses

TheGreatFluIn my last post, I discussed how games are being used to communicate, not just to entertain.  Today, I want to discuss The Great Flu, a game recently released by Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  The game attempts to educate the public about the dangers of and difficulty in containing flu pandemics.

In the game, the player acts as the head of the World Pandemic Control during the outbreak of an unknown flu.  As the game progresses, the player must take actions, such as dispatching research teams, dispensing medication and face masks, and closing schools and airports, in an attempt to control and ultimately defeat the virus.  As the pandemic intensifies, the player is given information about the history and science of epidemics through a series of newspaper articles and videos.  Eventually, if the player is successful, the game ends with a count of the number of people infected and killed over the pandemic’s life span, and the money spent containing the virus.

I think the game succeeds in presenting players with a lot of information through the multimedia featured in the game, and by including hints in it, giving players incentive to absorb it.  Furthermore, it nicely illustrates the dangers of our highly connected world: there’s nothing more jarring than fighting a virus raging in Central and North America only to glance at Europe and find the epidemic exploding half way across the globe.  However, the game does suffer from a few common pitfalls, and going over them might shed some light on some of the challenges with using games for education.

First, the game is difficult to access.  The instructional video is slow and doesn’t offer help when one needs it.  There is no built in tutorial (stay tuned for a future post about the importance of these).  It takes quite a while before the virus even appears, during which time the player can do nothing but wait (or quit, which I expect many players would do).  Furthermore, though the game looks beautiful, its interface is awkward in my opinion.  Unnecessary graphics get in the way of the game, making it difficult to traverse the world.  A whole map that fits in the screen would be very welcome.

Second, the machinery behind the game remains a mystery.  The player never learns how the virus actually spreads, or how any of his or her actions directly affects it.  After the pandemic escalates for a while, a newspaper article will suddenly appear saying the virus has reached its peak and no new cases are being reported, after which the game will quickly end in victory, but the player gets little to indicate what caused it to slow down or even when it is slowing down.  Admittedly, this is a very difficult challenge for simulation games such as this one, especially ones designed to be played by casual web surfers: there is a lot of information to present, and little attention for learning complex systems.  However, some way to see the rate of spread within and between regions could have gone a long way in terms of explaining how the player’s actions actually made a difference.

As you might expect, an obfuscated system reveals little information to a player, and the game ultimately relies on the multimedia embedded within it to educate.  While the game does offer incentives for people to experience information in the media they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, I suspect many players would pay as little attention to it as possible, and focus primarily on winning the game.  Unfortunately, with so few feedback mechanisms, this will result in picking up little knowledge about epidemics.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and check out The Great Flu firsthand.  I have perhaps been overly critical about the details of the game in hopes that they will reveal some of the challenges with using games to communicate, but what you should remember more than anything is this: it is a game with a specific educational agenda.  This form of communication is in its infancy, and as you’d expect it has a long way to go before it matures into a truly effective medium.  The Great Flu is among the first of its kind, and will surely achieve its goal in reaching an audience that would otherwise have no exposure to this sort of information.


About the author:  Teale is a PhD student hailing from Fairbanks, Alaska. His interests include content generation, artificial life, and educational games. Read more from this author


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25 Comments

  1. Posted August 14, 2009 at 7:25 AM | Permalink

    We made a game at Persuasive Games last year on a similar topic, but from a very different perspective: Killer Flu. Our game was about how the virus spreads instead of how to try to stop it, and it also compared seasonal flu with pandemic flu. There are problems with Killer Flu too, but it’s an interesting specimen to compare with this. Glad there are multiple games such that we can do so.

  2. Posted August 14, 2009 at 9:32 AM | Permalink

    Hey Teale,
    In Edge a month or so ago, Steven Poole noted that a feeling of powerlessness could be just as valid for a game feedback loop as an empowered one. You have all these buttons in front of you, but you don’t know how any of them work, or even if they will. I think this might be at the heart of The Great Flu: you’re dealing with healthcare at such an abstracted level once you reach pandemic status, that all you can do is pump some money in it, take actions that sound plausibly useful and hope for the best. Seen through this lens, the lack of feedback is actually a good thing!

    As an educational vehicle, I found it more troubled. It’s presentational style indicates some fun jaunt, with smiley skulls and happy pinks, even though I’ve just witnessed the deaths of millions. I can see they were trying to echo Defcon’s style, but it misses the subtlety, and suffers without the cultural touchstone of Wargames framing the action. I’d have preferred something that communicated the gravity of the situation a bit more.

  3. vincent de wit
    Posted August 15, 2009 at 3:39 AM | Permalink

    This kind of game is potentially very useful for public and health staff education but as a professional public health specialist dealing with influenza I find the lay-out unnessarily complicated and also noted software problems. Hope the team will come up with a 2.0 version!

  4. Posted September 7, 2009 at 11:23 PM | Permalink

    This is an awesome game! lol, But I really love the second version that has come out. The developers have added so much versatility to make it even more addicting and fun.

  5. Posted September 8, 2009 at 1:18 AM | Permalink

    MAte, I love the idea of games the make us think. Fantastic. Thanks for sharing

  6. Posted September 13, 2009 at 6:57 PM | Permalink

    I like the thrust of the “game” but in truth, it’s just a matter of time. Kudos!

  7. Posted September 14, 2009 at 3:27 PM | Permalink

    See Obama is telling kids and teachers to wash their hands often?

  8. joe
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 5:16 AM | Permalink

    Interesting article,
     i like the idea of health related games it certainly gets you
    thinking.

  9. Lisa Reed
    Posted May 28, 2010 at 8:05 AM | Permalink

    Games like this exercise our minds in hopes of educating them. I really like games like this because I enjoy games that deal with strategy and crisis management but I don’t see the mainstream market diving in to play these games.

  10. JDM LED
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:15 PM | Permalink

    It is kind of like those movies that we are the only survivers in this world trying to take control and preventing being killed.

  11. jmsxyz
    Posted July 5, 2010 at 1:37 PM | Permalink

    Great Post! I love how you summize that the flu epedemic is nothing more than a game. I agree with you 100%. Most so called flu epidemics are nothing more than a spring board to sell some large Corporation’s Product who is being backed by some high paid off politicians.

    http://thenewcashcodesystem.blogspot.com/

  12. Joe | Desarrollo humano
    Posted October 13, 2010 at 11:25 AM | Permalink

    It is very important to be knowledgeable about these issues, because without proper control can trigger a terrible tragedy worldwide

  13. ululz
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:26 PM | Permalink

    4.Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing? I have a presentation incoming week, and I am on the lookout for such information.

  14. Ken Seamon
    Posted December 12, 2010 at 12:10 AM | Permalink

    This game is still available as of December 2010, and I just spent 10 minutes giving it a tryout. The interface is excellent, and the concept is admirable. However, some sample game-play might be useful in getting a player up to speed more quickly. Still, if you hunt and peck among the options the idea will probably become clear fairly soon. I sell games online, and I would love to see more simulation games of this type be made for commercial consumption by the savvy casual gamer market that I service. There are far too many “no-brainer” simulation games that offer little challenge or longivity for the user. And to end on a positive note in the real world: A vaccine that gives lifelong protection against all known strains of the flu, including bird and swine flu in a single shot could be available in just three years. SEEK, the London based makers of the vaccine says it will trigger the body’s production of cytotoxic T cell to kill the viruses. Bye-bye pandemic! (We hope.)

  15. Dingo
    Posted December 17, 2010 at 1:31 PM | Permalink

    I like the idea of the game. it makes great sense. Can you also In Edge a month or so ago, Steven Poole noted that a feeling of powerlessness could be just as valid for a game feedback loop as an empowered one. You have all these buttons in front of you, but you don’t know how any of them work, or even if they will. I think this might be at the heart of The Great Flu

  16. Ayaz
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 11:43 PM | Permalink

    I think this is a great effort, this way you will get knowledge along with entertainment.

  17. trevor75
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 5:55 AM | Permalink

    I don’t see the mainstream market diving in to play these games.

  18. clint herman
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 7:30 PM | Permalink

    When i saw the title of this post, i found it silly, I thought this is some kind of a joke. But then when i read the content, wow, it’s kind of an interesting game. Beautiful!

  19. kerrick
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:33 AM | Permalink

    It’s an amazing idea. Pretty fun at first. Better than doing yard work. The graphics kind of remind me of a better version of the movie “War Games” Remember the computer that wants to play a nice game of chess, but Mathew Broderick wants to play Global Thermo-Nuclear War.

  20. Jared
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 8:00 AM | Permalink

    I checked it out, looks pretty hectic but like revor75 said, I dont think that it will become a big thing with the average Joe. But it definitely opens eyes.

    Too bad most of the world wants to keep them shut

    Best regards
    Jared
    The MMO Gamer

  21. Katherine Mccain
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 5:52 AM | Permalink

    Hi kerrick! what’s your opinion about Pandemic Education for the Masses. I think you can much write about it

  22. john
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 12:00 PM | Permalink

    As an educational vehicle, I found it more troubled. It’s presentational style indicates some fun jaunt, with smiley skulls and happy pinks, even though I’ve just witnessed the deaths of millions. I can see they were trying to echo Defcon’s style, but it misses the subtlety, and suffers without the cultural touchstone of Wargames framing the action. I’d have preferred something that communicated the gravity of the situation a bit more.

  23. LGV licence
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 2:26 PM | Permalink

    Thats a good game, I love these types of games that make us stop and think how in a small way this could actually happen.

    Have you ever heard of pandemic 2? it lets you “build” your own disease and its pretty addictive! The hardest part is getting the paranoid island of Madagascar! they close their docks soon as Africa gets the cold! :P

    Regards

    William

  24. Leah Madison
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 3:08 AM | Permalink

    I think this is a fascinating topic. I’m studying the effects of games on cultural society and I really like games like this, because I enjoy games that deal with strategy and crisis management but I don’t see the mainstream market diving in to play these games.
    A real work of-art!

    Thanks you so much !

  25. Jane
    Posted June 11, 2011 at 10:43 PM | Permalink

    Wow this sounds like a good game… With the game, you will not only enjoy but you’ll get ideas about crisis strategies for our society, which will be shown and played on the game…Thanks for sharing!!!

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