Banish blues with viral video games

Technology | 5 Nov 2020

Todd Martens

Surrounded, concerned and frustrated by the pandemic, I didn't want Covid-19 to enter my game-playing time. The virus and its effects had consumed enough of my life.

Confession: I was wrong.

I 100 percent did not know I needed a Covid-19 game - let alone 51 of them - but I absolutely did. Of course, it helps that these games generally don't present dark, complex simulations.

Also, they were made in collaboration with an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, meaning a number of them contain actual research.

To ensure that thee games were fact-based, the makers not only had access to epidemiological models from Georgia Tech, but also could consult medical and health experts organized with input from the National Academy of Sciences' cultural-education-focused LabX department.

The best of the 51 games felt as if they were opening a dialogue, allowing me to communicate digitally about topics I wasn't always vocal about. Play became a much-needed exhale.

Cat Colony Crisis, for instance, is cutesy chaos. Don't assume anything, I told myself, as Ms Cat sneezed. Maybe Ms Cat just has a preexisting condition? But why isn't Ms. Cat wearing a mask?

A pandemic is no time to behave like cats. Being a cat is no excuse, Ms Cat!

When it comes to educating people about Covid-19, said Rick Thomas of LabX, a big challenge is the invisibility of the virus and the struggle to recognize when we're making a difference, being overly panicked or simply being selfish. Games, specifically their ability to visualize abstract subjects as well as their need to ask players to lean in and take an active role, can close that gap.

"Games are good to help combat Covid because they translate data into stories and help show people how individual decisions can impact larger issues," said Thomas.

The submitted games largely avoid the tendency of more mainstream games to put the emphasis on a global pandemic spread and how to manage assets. Here, the games have a human focus.

The Covid Express feels like my daily life - that is, having to navigate among the unmasked in public spaces or on mass transit.

PandeManager is more complex, asking you to survive one year as mayor amid shifting policy decisions. Smash the Curve is influenced by the classic game Breakout, where Covid-19 graphs replace the standard bricks, and power-ups come in the form of masks and contact tracing.

Be prepared for an amateur, do-it-yourself feel. The games are made quickly, and the goal is to express an idea through play rather than create a slick, finished product. Yet the most polished of the games, such as Outbreak in Space, allow players to go deep in experiments with variables.

Against a sci-fi backdrop, Outbreak in Space shows us what happens when a certain percentage of the population doesn't wear masks, isolate or socially distance - all of it underwritten by Georgia Tech's simulation equations.

But even a simpler title such as Everyday Hero, which boasts an old-fashioned arcade feel in which we must keep descending figures distanced and masked, can put a fanciful spin on science.

"People are just walking down the screen and you're trying to keep them far apart. Then it adds masks. Then it adds sick people. Then you have to prioritize," said IndieCade's Celia Pearce, a game designer and professor at Northeastern University. "It makes you think about your personal space."

Some games deal with weighty topics. Lab Hero is a colorful simulation of a medical professional's challenges and focuses on keeping people distanced, treating patients and researching a vaccine. Others went a more personal route. Nonessential, for instance, is an intimate conversation game about the ways in which we deflect our worries and avoid topics of mental health.

Epidemiologist Sarah Matthews already had to work through multiple outbreaks, including the latest. She wasn't so sure she had much space for games in her adult life, but after serving as a mentor on Jamming the Curve, she's a firm believer.

"This is powerful stuff," she said. "This technology can revolutionize how we do things. If you remember when you were a kid, you learned through play. That resonated with me. I recognized that again. You can learn through play."

She joked that some of the games, especially those that simulate the public not following health guidelines, can be therapeutic for medical professionals who are seeing their advice go unheeded.

The game Together dealt with such a topic, showing how the lives of two people with opposite views of the pandemic - one very nervous and another fed up with distancing, masks and closures - will intersect whether they like it or not.

Together, said designer Chelsea Brtis, an adjunct professor with the Virginia Commonwealth University's communication arts department, was a way for her to manage her own frustrations with those she saw not taking the pandemic seriously.

"Games open up the opportunity to have a conversation with yourself on serious issues," she said. "The game starts the conversation."

To play or download the games, go to the Jamming the Curve submissions page at itch.io/jam/jamming-the-curve/entries.

los angeles times (tns)

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