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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.

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