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

Matteo Menapace
Mar 17 · 7 min read

🐘 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.

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 rather niche type of games, in which every player works together against the game itself, to reach a shared goal and/or defeat a common enemy.

Pandemic’s popularity over the years may shed some light on how we respond to viruses. My hypothesis is that Pandemic is popular not just because it’s well designed, but also because it taps into our very human desire to exert control over nature.

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 vaccines. You win all together when you find vaccines for all four viruses. You lose when outbreaks get out of control.

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. In that sense, the message is that only through cooperation we can effectively fight a powerful enemy. I’m on board with that cooperative spirit. We definitely 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 there’s something quite disturbing about it. People, as in the civilians 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 doesn’t model any social behaviour, it only focuses on the virus mechanics. It makes the viruses very visible, while making people invisible. Your ultimate goal is discovering a vaccine, not healing people. It seems to rest on the assumption that a cure will eventually be found, as long as you keep the spread of the disease under control.

Disease is a “perfect opponent: it’s fairly easy to model in a game, uncaring and scarysaid Matthew Leacock, who designed Pandemic. 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 suddenly. It 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 doesn’t have much to say about all this. By making viruses visible and humans invisible, it removes emotions like panic, denial, disbelief, mistrust, and the cognitive dissonance felt by many of us in the last few weeks.

But we could still think of games that focus on human responses to a constant danger and help us interrogate our own behaviours.

Games that put us mortals in the spotlight

Games that help us come to terms with our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, as individuals and communities.

A few sketchy ideas, in no particular order.

I feel that exploring our patterns of behaviour through play, and even losing against an invisible virus because we didn’t trust each other or couldn’t coordinate our actions, could be more useful than the aseptic simulation of a disaster management game like Pandemic.


🆕 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 (also embedded below)

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

P.S. I’m in good health and have been in self-isolation for about two weeks. My folks in Italy are well. I hope you and your loved ones are too! As much as you can, please stay in & stay safe!


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There Will Be Games

A publication for the discerning tabletop game fiend.

Matteo Menapace

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Games. Climate crisis. What can creatives do about it? [he/him]

There Will Be Games

A publication for the discerning tabletop game fiend.

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