August 02, 2008

Pandemic Pandemic Game

Andaman skullThe game Pandemic 2 seems to be sweeping the Internet. Very fitting that a game about infectious disease is a viral success.

As a player one "controls" a disease, trying to wipe out all of humanity. As more people succumb to the disease it gets "evolution points" that can be used to buy new symptoms, resistances and properties. As the pandemic spreads governments try to stop it - issuing curfews, closing airports, killing pests or working on a vaccine. The real game is to manage to infect all areas of the planet before everything is closed down, and then to ensure that the hospitals working on a cure are closed.

As discussed on the game itself has many flaws. Getting paranoid, isolated Madagascar is hard and a matter of pure luck. The interface has many problems and there is a lack of control that makes the game unexciting. It reminds me of the classic Balance of Power which was so realistic that it was unplayable. Yet there is a feel that inside this game there is a great game that is waiting to be born.

As one commenter remarked, the game would not work if it was not about wiping out the real world - the same dynamics in a fantasy setting simply doesn't work. The real reason the game is catching is that it is about the real world. A somewhat unrealistic model maybe, but close enough to SARS, avian flu and the 1918 flu to make sense. It is hard not to imagine the scenes as nations close their borders and desperately try to research a vaccine while society is crumbling under the onslaught of feverish, hemorrhaging victims. Or the Malagasy riding out the apocalypse on their island. The sheer abstraction of the game adds an imaginative dimension to it.

I wonder about the motivations for making this game. Sure, wiping out humanity is enjoyable as a game (witness the various nuclear war games) - we all have a little apocalypse enthusiast somewhere in our brains telling us that it would be neat if the world ended in some dramatic way. But the game also seems to teach a fairly good lesson about what makes a truly nasty pandemic: a long incubation time, the ability to stay under the radar of containment attempts and a decent infectiousness. I doubt this is intended as hands-on training for would-be bioterrorists. Rather I think it helps people see a threat that often remains remote. I wouldn't be totally surprised if the CDC or DHS had supported the development of the game, for educational and maybe political purposes. Because it no doubt contributes to the availability heuristic: after playing this game I would expect people to rate the risk of pandemic megadeath significantly higher. Which would be a good thing if it could be converted into rational policy - on average people seem to treat pandemics too lightly. Maybe some light gaming can help.

Posted by Anders3 at August 2, 2008 01:31 AM