What does Pandemic (the game) teach us about the COVID-19 pandemic?

🐘 Is this clickbait?

Is Matteo riding the attention wave of a global health crisis to talk about his games? For a couple of weeks now I’ve been drafting and re-drafting this post. Writing about anything else than the virus seemed like an inappropriate distraction. “Why would anyone care to read my musings on something shallow like games, when there’s a deadly threat spreading rapidly amongst us?” asked a voice inside me.

Yet I still wanted to write, if only as a way to keep my mind occupied while getting used to self-isolation. And reach out, because we may (soon, or already, depending on where you live) be in physical lockdown, but we don’t need communication breakdowns.

Yes, when games are sold as entertainment they tend to become a distraction, a diversion from serious business or from mundane life. In Italian, the word for “fun” is indeed divertimento. But games don’t have to be just “fun”. It depends on how we approach them. Other art forms explore all themes, and so can games. In particular, games can simulate complex systems, and help us make sense of situations with a high degree of uncertainty.

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Games to make sense of viral outbreaks?

I will focus on a game called Pandemic (Matt Leacock 2008), arguably the most popular cooperative board game.

Coop games are a very recent and growing niche, in which every player works together against the game itself, to reach a shared goal and/or defeat a common enemy. If that puzzles you, it’s probably because for millennia we have been thinking of games mostly as a form of competition. We’re not used (yet) to fully cooperate with our fellow players.

In Pandemic players must combat the spread of four viruses by moving their special characters to various cities and managing infections, while also gathering and exchanging information that will lead to a cure. You win all together when you find cures for all four viruses. You lose when outbreaks get out of control.

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Pandemic has a simple and effective way to simulate viral outbreaks. Viruses are represented with coloured cubes, and their spread is determined by drawing cards from a semi-randomised deck. Players can see the cubes piling up in cities and they know if one city reaches outbreak-point then the virus will spread to the neighbouring cities. This could turn into a chain reaction if those cities are also close to outbreak-point. There’s a constant tension between making risky choices to contain the viruses in the short term, and working on the long term goal of a vaccine.

As a game, it’s quite hard to win, and achieving that requires careful planning and tight communication between players. The moral of the game is that only through cooperation we can effectively overcome a powerful enemy. I’m fully on board with that cooperative spirit. We desperately need cooperation and solidarity in these tough times. It’s our civic duty.

You vs the virus. But where is everyone?

I love playing Pandemic, but even before COVID-19 there was something a little disturbing about it, which took me a while to pinpoint. It’s about people, or rather their absence.

Common people, those affected and/or infected by the viruses, are nowhere to be seen. It’s you, a dream team of doctors and scientists, against the viruses. Pandemic makes the viruses very visible, while making people invisible.

Disease is a “perfect opponent: it’s fairly easy to model in a game, uncaring and scary” said Pandemic’s author Matt Leacock. Maybe modelling (and then playing out) the behaviour of a virus is easier than modelling how humans react to a virus. But what I learned so far about the COVID-19 crisis is that while the virus is a constant, the variables are all human.

What makes the difference between a threat and a tragedy is how people respond to it collectively.

What happens when the virus is invisible?

The trouble with COVID-19 is that unlike the Pandemic cubes, this one is invisible. It circulates undetected, giving little or no symptoms to those who carry it, so that contagion happens gradually, and then suddenlyIt is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways. Being less deadly than other viruses is what makes COVID-19 so dangerous.

It puts a strain on our mutual trust, as we have no way to tell if anyone we come across is infected or not. This wasn’t the case with SARS for example, when a much deadlier virus would quickly reveal itself by making infected people sick, and thus helping us contain its spread.

An invisible virus shakes our religious belief in data, as we know the numbers of official cases only reflect those who tested positive. But those who haven’t been tested are many more. The data we collect is patchy, and gives us a picture of the virus a few days ago, not now.

It makes us suspicious of authorities, as governments struggle to balance business as usual with a response to this unprecedented health crisis. Which in turn is a challenge to our ability to take invisible threats seriously.

Pandemic teaches us how vital communicationcoordination and cooperation are in pushing back against a powerful and unforgiving enemy. We can’t win this one alone.

Beyond that crucial lesson, I’m interested in making room for emotions like panic, denial, disbelief, mistrust, and the cognitive dissonance felt by many of us in the last few weeks. Making and playing games that model social behaviours, focusing on human responses to invisible dangers, and help us come to terms with our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, both as individuals and as communities.

Games that put us mortals in the spotlight

A few sketchy ideas, in no particular order.

  • Games where infection is a hidden piece of information, like a card you pick from other players every time you are in close proximity to them, and you don’t know if that card is positive or negative unless you get tested, which is a costly privilege / scarce resource.
  • Games about restrictions like being forced to go into work either by an irresponsible employer (buoyed by an irresponsible government) or by material necessities. Imagine playing as a zero-hours delivery worker, making risky choices whilst trying to still make ends meet. Or imagine playing as a doctor, having to make extremely difficult choices about who gets access to an overstretched intensive care unit.
  • Games where everyone knows what the responsible choice is, but nobody wants to make the first step for fear of being ridiculed, or losing business.
  • Games about understanding exponential growth, and being prepared before it hits you.
  • Games that help you explain to your skeptical relatives, friends or co-worker that this is not like the flu.
  • Games about trust. Imagine a mafia-style coughing mechanic where social deduction is about who’s carrying the virus, and whether they’re aware of it or not.
  • Games about the cognitive burden of changing our habits.
  • Games that train us to work together and weigh the long-term effects of small individual sacrifices for the common wellbeing.
  • And ideally all the above would be playable over videoconference while we’re in self-isolation.

P.S. I’m in good health and have been in self-isolation for about three weeks. My folks in Italy are well. I hope you and your loved ones are too!

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Update (27/03/2020)

I’ve been working on a card “game” about surviving COVID19 and trying to get on with our precarious lives.

Working title “BrisCORONA”

Free print&play bit.ly/brisCORONA

Please play it, hack it, share it and stay safe!

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