Putting Games to Work in the Battle Against COVID-19

Sara Frueh at the National Academies: “While video games often give us a way to explore other worlds, they can also help us learn more about our own — including how to navigate a pandemic. That was the premise underlying “Jamming the Curve,” a competition that enlisted over 400 independent video game developers around the world to develop concepts for games that reflect the real-world dynamics of COVID-19.

“Games can help connect our individual actions to larger-scale impact … and help translate data into engaging stories,” said Rick Thomas, associate program officer of LabX, a program of the National Academy of Sciences that supports creative approaches to public engagement.

Working with partners IndieCade and Georgia Tech, LabX brought Jamming the Curve to life over two weeks in September.

The “game jam” generated over 50 game concepts that drop players into a wide array of roles — from a subway rider trying to minimize the spread of infection among passengers, to a grocery store cashier trying to help customers while avoiding COVID-19, to a fox ninja tasked with dispensing masks to other forest creatures.

The five winning game concepts (see below) were announced at an award ceremony in late October, where each winning team was given a $1,000 prize and the chance to compete for a $20,000 grant to develop their game further.

The power of games

“Sometimes public health concepts can be a little dry,” said Carla Alvarado, a public health expert and program officer at the National Academies who served as a judge for the competition, during the awards ceremony. “Games package that information — it’s bite-sized, it’s digestible, and it’s palatable.”

And because games engage the senses and involve movement, they help people remember what they learn, she said. “That type of learning — experiential learning — helps retain a lot of the concepts.”

The idea of doing a game jam around COVID-19 began when Janet Murray of Georgia Tech reached out to Stephanie Barish and her colleagues at IndieCade about games’ potential to help express the complicated data around the disease. “Not everybody really knows how to look at that all of that information, and games are so wonderful at reaching people in ways that people understand,” Barish said.

Rick Thomas and the LabX team heard about the idea for Jamming the Curve and saw how they could contribute. The program had experience organizing other game projects around role-playing and storytelling — along with access to a range of scientists and public health experts through the National Academies’ networks.

“Given the high stakes of the topic around COVID-19 and the amount of misinformation around the pandemic, we really needed to make sure that we were doing this right when it came to creating these games,” said Thomas. LabX helped to recruit public health professionals involved in the COVID-19 response, as well as experts in science communication and risk perception, to serve as mentors to the game developers.

Play the Winning Games!

Trailers and some playable prototypes for the five winning game concepts can be found online:

  • Everyday Hero, in which players work to stop the spread of COVID-19 through measures such as social distancing and mask use
  • PandeManager, which gives players the job of a town’s mayor who must slow the spread of disease among citizens
  • Lab Hero, in which users play a first responder who is working hard to find a vaccine while following proper health protocols
  • Cat Colony Crisis, in which a ship of space-faring cats must deal with a mysterious disease outbreak
  • Outbreak in Space, which challenges players to save friends and family from a spreading epidemic in an alien world

All of the games submitted to Jamming the Curve can be found at itch.io.

The games needed to be fun as well as scientifically accurate — and so IndieCade, Georgia Tech, and Seattle Indies recruited gaming experts who could advise participants on how to make their creations engaging and easy to understand….(More)“.