Blog by the Hastings Institute: “Before there was the Covid-19 pandemic, there was Pandemic. This tabletop game, in which players collaborate to fight disease outbreaks, debuted in 2007. Expansions feature weaponized pathogens, historic pandemics, zoonotic diseases, and vaccine development races. Game mechanics modelled on pandemic vectors provide multiple narratives: battle, quest, detection, discovery. There is satisfaction in playing “against” disease–and winning.
Societies globally are responding to Covid-19 under differing political and economic conditions. In the United States, these conditions include mass unemployment and entrenched social inequalities that drive health disparities by race, class, and neighborhood. Real pandemic is not as tidy as a game. But can games, and the immense appetite for them, support understanding about the societal challenges we now face? Yes.
A well-designed game is structured as a flow chart or a decision tree. Games simulate challenges, require choices, and allow players to see the consequences of their decisions. Visual and narrative elements enhance these vicarious experiences. Game narratives can engage human capacities such as empathy, helping us to imagine the perspectives of people unlike ourselves. In The Waiting Game (2018), an award-winning digital single-player game designed by news outlets ProPublica and WNYC and game design firm Playmatics, the player starts by choosing one of five characters representing asylum seekers. The player is immersed in a day-by-day depiction of their character’s journey and experiences. Each “day,” the player must make a choice: give up or keep going?
Games can also engage the moral imagination by prompting players to reflect on competing values and implicit biases. In the single-player game Parable of the Polygons (2014), a player moves emoji-like symbols into groups. This quick game visualizes how decisions aimed at making members of a community happier can undermine a shared commitment to diversity when happiness relies on living near people “like me.” It is free-to-play on the website of Games for Change (G4C), a nonprofit organization that promotes the development and use of games to imagine and respond to real-world problems.
Also in the G4C arcade is Cards Against Calamity (2018), which focuses on local governance in a coastal town. This game, developed by 1st Playable Productions and the Environmental Law Institute, aims to help local policymakers foresee community planning challenges in balancing environmental protections and economic interests. Plague Inc. (2012) flips the Pandemic script by having players assume the pathogen role, winning by spreading. This game has been used as a teaching tool and has surged in popularity during disease outbreak: in January 2020, its designers issued a statement reminding players that Plague Inc. should not be used for pandemic modeling….(More)”.