Three games that might actually teach you something about the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s been roughly a few weeks or so (depending on where you live) since we all went into social isolation, and lots of outlets have posted lists of the best games to play while quarantine. That’s great info, but let’s face it, any game that is good to play while quarantined was just as good to play when everything was normal. We just all have more time now.

That’s not the case for all games, though. Some games are designed around the very idea of pandemics. I’m not talking about every zombie game in existence that blames the walking dead on some virus or another. I’m talking about games that task you with managing large scale disease outbreaks with medicine and knowledge, not shotguns. Believe it or not, playing these games, especially now that we are all in the midst of a global pandemic, will teach you quite a bit about how diseases spread and why we are doing what we are doing to prevent that spread.

So let’s take a look at some games that will actually teach you something about epidemiology in these trying times, starting with perhaps the most aptly named.

Pandemic

Pandemic is a board game that has seen several digital implementations that is eventually group solitaire. You take the role of several specialists during a global disease outbreak, and it’s up to you to contain the disease, find a cure/vaccine, and save the world.

Pandemic is largely abstracted. Disease is represented by small little cubes and outbreaks can happen anywhere at random, so in that aspect it’s not the most realistic pandemic simulator. However, it does teach you something about how disease travels, and how infection grows at an exponential rate.

However, Pandemic also has two legacy versions, and this is where things get interesting. In the legacy version, you aren’t fighting a single disease outbreak, you are fighting a lasting global pandemic that requires long term strategies to fight, from closing airports to quarantining entire cities. Particularly bad outbreaks have ongoing ramifications that haunt you through every game. It’s still not 100 percent accurate of course, but it feels more real.

Plague Inc: Evolved

Plague Inc. is another strategy game that tasks you with managing a worldwide pandemic, but this time you are playing on the pandemic’s side. Your goal is to infect and kill the entire world’s populace. That might seem a little morbid, especially in this day and age, but playing Plague Inc. is an incredible learning experience.

You see, the populace of the world is going to do whatever they can to stop your disease. Every loss teaches you something about how global pandemics can be stopped. Your disease might burn itself out simply because it doesn’t have enough transmission vectors to remain infective. You might find yourself stranded in only one country because airport and seaport travel has been shutdown. People might quarantine themselves, reducing the chance to transmit your disease by touch or airborne cough. Each and every scenario teaches you something about why what we are doing is so necessary.

Heck, if you need a little pick-me-up, you can actually watch COVID-19 lose. You can create a viral outbreak with the same symptoms of COVID-19, watch it spread, and then watch it die out with the majority of the world still surviving. Granted, this is still just a game and not a professional epidemic simulator, but there are lots of parallels that are worth noticing.

For example, you can tweak each scenario. Sometimes people are more prepared for your plague, which makes it much harder for you to spread out of your point of origin. This is why it’s so important for us to invest in our health-care infrastructure, and to not forget about the lessons we learn from COVID-19, or any epidemic, from SARS, to the Ebola virus, to the Swine Flu and more. It’s not over when the pandemic goes away, because there’s always another one waiting to happen. Pandemics are like little glitches in the code of biology and chemistry, and given enough time and random chance, something somewhere will prove incredibly infectious and we will need to be ready for it.

And of course, if you get bored you can always try to infect the world with zombies. It’s really hard to talk about disease based gaming without falling down a zombie hole.

Solve the Outbreak

Believe it or not, the CDC has also dipped its toes into the game design pool. Now Solve the Outbreak is a browser based game, so don’t expect AAA polish on this one, but it’s also one of the most informative gaming experiences on offer. It’s an investigative game, somewhat similar to Phoenix Wright (but once again much simpler) where you attempt to discover the origins of a pandemic and how it spreads. Early levels are pretty simple, but later levels do test your brain power a little bit.

What’s incredibly valuable here is that each and every stop along the way gives you a chance to learn. There’s a learn button that will teach you more about whatever you are currently investigation, and this can teach you all sorts of things from how pandemics spread, to how we can fight them, to the difference between viral and bacterial outbreaks, and how to prevent global panic.

In fact, the panic angle is one of the more interesting angles that this game plays with. Acting on incomplete information can just cause global panic, which is why it is always important to double-check any info you receive about global pandemics like COVID-19. Don’t take any headline you see for granted and make sure all info you receive comes from a primary source like the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization.

That’s three games that we think can serve as an education experience during this outbreak. If you have any other educational games, or games that provide a hefty dose of tangential learning about disease and disease outbreaks, leave your recommendations down in the comments.