Megan Condis is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University, where she teaches classes on popular culture, rhetorical criticism, and game studies. She is the author of Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture (University of Iowa Press, 2018). She has also published her research in several academic journals including Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The Journal of Modern Literature as well as popular outlets including Variety Magazine, Al Jazeera America, and The New York Times.
On March 26th, 2020, Matt Leacock, the designer of the best-selling cooperative board game Pandemic (2008), wrote an impassioned opinion piece for The New York Times. In it, he describes how his game, one in which “all players work together in an attempt to save humanity from four deadly diseases” (Leacock), serves as a way for players to better understand the many types of work that go into managing a public health crisis such as the one currently being caused by COVID-19. One might think that playing a game about surviving a deadly infectious virus would be the last thing that people would want to do while being stuck inside during quarantine, but, as Leacock points out, Pandemic “gives people a chance to confront their fears, make sense of the situation and perhaps even feel somewhat in control.”
In this essay, I argue that Pandemic is also useful to convey technical information to its players about the epidemiological principles that are governing our response to the virus. In particular, the game does an excellent job of allowing players to experience the importance of “flattening the curve” of virus cases. However, in its current form, the game lacks a mechanism to model another key factor in the spread of the coronavirus in the United States: the political decisions made by various government institutions in response to its arrival. It is therefore unable to model a critical factor that has contributed to the U.S. making up more than a quarter of the world’s confirmed cases and a quarter of the deaths that have been attributed to the virus (Bump) despite the fact that it makes up only 4% of the world’s population (Andrew). Therefore, I propose a few additional mods to the base game that I hope will generate discussion around questions of public health policy, in addition to communicating the science around virus transmission.
In epidemiology, “the curve refers to the projected number of new cases over a period of time” (Meredith) and is often represented via a line graph with time plotted along the X-axis and the number of reported cases plotted along the Y-axis. A “flattened” curve, therefore, refers to a graph shape in which the number of reported cases stretches out over a long period of time as opposed to a sharp spike in cases developing all at once (see Figure 1). Although it is quite possible that the same number of people will be infected across either a flat or a steep curve, the steeper curve is likely to be more deadly as a high number of cases concentrated in a short time window “could overwhelm the number of beds and care teams that our nation’s hospitals have available” (Gavin). On the other hand, “if individuals and communities take steps to slow the virus’s spread, that means the number of cases. . . will stretch out across a longer period of time” (Gavin), meaning that those who do get sick will have better access to care. This is the purpose behind governmental responses such as “social-distancing guidelines, ‘shelter in place’ orders, restrictive travel measures” (Meredith) and the like: they are designed to slow the virus’s spread to ensure that hospitals remain functional, and resources like ventilators and personal protective equipment are not depleted before a vaccine becomes available.
Pandemic features several game mechanics that help to illustrate the importance of flattening the curve. For example, the game utilizes small plastic cubes to illustrate the infection rate of a disease within a city. During each turn, players must draw cards from the Infection Deck that will tell them which cities must receive an additional cube, increasing their cities’ infection rate. However, if players ever run out of the cubes and are unable to place one on the board when required, they lose the game. Therefore, players must keep a watchful eye on their stockpile of cubes to ensure that they do not run too low. We can think of this loss condition as an illustration of what happens when the numbers of infected overwhelm the available resources needed to treat patients with that disease.
Further complicating matters is the Outbreak game mechanic. An Outbreak occurs when a city that already has three cubes on it becomes infected. When this happens, the infection spills outwards, requiring players to place an additional cube on every city connected to the one in which the Outbreak is taking place. In areas with a high density of infection, one Outbreak can trigger additional Outbreaks in neighboring cities, creating a cascading effect that makes it much more likely for the players to run out of cubes and lose the game. Furthermore, if a total of eight Outbreaks occur during the course of a game, it triggers an automatic “game over.” As a result, players of Pandemic quickly learn that the key to victory lies in preventing these Outbreaks wherever possible by focusing their attention on small areas of the globe with a high concentration of infection rather than on a few viral cubes spread out over a large expanse of the map. This mechanic demonstrates the dangers of a steep curve by modeling what can happen when the rate of infection rises out of control and overwhelms the resources available within a region.
In addition to the insights gained from the standard version of the game, we can also look to the COVID-19 scenarios that fans and modders have created. For example, C3i Magazine recently released a special edition sourcebook designed to help “players better understand how this Coronavirus spreads and explore the benefits and costs of mass-scale Social Distancing” (Bender et al.). The scenario adds a “new special action” for players to take during their turn in which:
A player in a location specified by a card in their hand may spend an Action there to establish a Social Distancing policy in that location. Place the card at the top of the map as a reminder. No new Disease Cubes can be placed in that location. . . Once 5 location cards of the same color are played for Social Distancing. . ., then all of the locations in that region are considered Social Distanced and no future Disease Cubes can be played in any location of that color. (Bender et al.)
This mechanic illustrates several key components of how a social distancing strategy works to help flatten the curve. First, players must spend one of their two allotted actions per turn and use one of their City Cards to enact social distancing. This signifies that the establishment and adoption of social distancing policies takes time and effort on the part of local officials. In fact, the rules even account for the “economic impact to Social Distancing” by imposing limitations on player actions for each region that achieves social distancing: “after the first region is Social Distanced, all players will have 1 less Action per turn . . . After the second region is Social Distanced, players may only draw 1 Player Card instead of 2 during their turn” (Bender et al.). Furthermore, the game acknowledges that social distancing requires widespreadadoption to be effective. However, once it is in place, social distancing prevents the further spread of the disease, within the region, keeping the infection rate steady and allowing medical health professionals time to work towards a vaccine.
But even this game mod is missing one key component to how the United States is reacting to the coronavirus: politics. Both the base game Pandemic and this fan-made scenario paint
a very optimistic and naively idealistic picture of how the medical community deals with epidemics in the real world: scientists cooperating with each other, sharing knowledge freely, moving around the globe with ease to deal with a threat that knows no borders. No governmental entities or funding agencies dare to stand in the way of their objective, scientific expertise. (Condis 90)
However, as anyone following the news about the U.S. government’s response to coronavirus knows by now, politics has been a key factor in the way that the crisis was initially framed, the way that resources to fight the spread of the disease have been allocated, and the way that the transition out of quarantine is being handled. This means that a game like Pandemic which “ignores the way that political and ideological considerations regularly interfere in questions of public health, even in cases of deadly global threats” (Condis 91) will be unable to recreate some of the scenarios we are currently seeing play out with regard to the coronavirus, as its mechanics assume a response that will be governed by scientific principles rather than partisan ones.
Therefore, I present a new mod for Pandemic that accounts for the political dimensions of public health by turning real-life events from the U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak into in-game Event cards. My aim is to build on the educational work that the game has already accomplished as well as to create an interactive historical document of the crisis for future players.
Playing Politics During COVID-19: A Scenario for Matt Leacock’s Pandemic
Note Regarding Difficulty
The special Event cards below are designed to make Pandemic much more difficult to play. It is recommended for players to use the Introductory difficulty setting (using only four out of the six total Epidemic cards) when using this mod.
Print and cut out the four special Event cards below. During the game set up, when preparing the Player Deck, create four piles of player cards in face-down piles that are as equal in size as possible. Shuffle 1 Epidemic card and one special Event card into each pile, face down. Stack these piles to form the Player Deck, placing smaller piles on the bottom.
You will also need a six-sided die.
New Event Cards
We know that President Trump “received more than a dozen warnings about the coronavirus outbreak in daily briefings in January and February” (Kelly) of 2020. However, during this period, he “continued to downplay the virus’s threat and severity” (Kelly) stating on February 26th that “when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done” and on February 27th that “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear” (Rieder). According to the New York Times, “The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe” (Shear, et al.). This card is meant to model the disastrous effects that can occur when the response to vital public health information is delayed.
The United States faced a number of hurdles in regard to securing adequate resources for testing and tracing cases of COVID-19, from a “lack of supplies such as swabs and a chemical known as a ‘reagent’ crucial to the [testing] process” (Collins et al.) to “lengthy delays in getting results” (Kaplan and Thomas) due to the extremely high demand being placed on labs and testing sites. This card is meant to model the uncertainties that can be introduced into a public health crisis when there is insufficient testing and tracing programs in place.
Quid Pro Quo
According to the Washington Post, President Trump has used the dispersal of federal aid related to the coronavirus to reward “states with governors most closely allied with Trump… while states with governors openly critical of Trump’s coronavirus failures—such as Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts—have received only fractions of their requests” (Geltzer). He also famously told reporters at a press conference that he had “instructed Vice President Mike Pence, whom he has placed in charge of the coronavirus response, not to call the governors of some blue states where the pandemic is raging,” later adding, “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call” (Goldberg). This card is meant to represent the adverse effects that the withholding of vital resources can have during a pandemic.
On May 29th, 2020, President Trump announced that he would be “terminating the country’s relationship with the World Health Organization,” (BBC News), an international group that “works to combat diseases globally, working with governments, other health organizations, foundations, professional associations, the UN and others” to “direct and coordinate international health responses and systems, including preparing, surveilling and responding to pandemics and other health issues” as well as “monitor and coordinate vaccine development” (Reichert). In response, “groups representing infectious disease doctors, pediatricians and general physicians all protested President Donald Trump’s decision . . . saying it will make it harder to fight the coronavirus pandemic” (Fox et al.). This card is meant to depict the havoc that a withdrawal from an international health organization might wreak during a global pandemic.
Although this version also has its own limitations, in particular its narrow focus on the response from the United States government. I would encourage other modders from around the world to make their own versions so that players might compare and contrast scenarios based on their government’s response to the pandemic. By engaging with a number of these scenarios, players can start to understand the underlying political logics that influence a government’s response to a public health emergency, even when the scientific consensus is pointing in the opposite direction. While no single game will be a perfect simulation of every possible scenario, a collection of such games might serve both as a historical archive of the way that various nations handled the COVID-19 crisis and as a way for players to scrutinize the various ways that bureaucratic and institutional behaviors shape public health outcomes.
Andrew, Scottie. “The US Has 4% of the World’s Population But 25% of Its Coronavirus Cases.” CNN,
June 30, 2020. Accessed September 2, 2020.
BBC News. “Coronavirus: Trump Terminates US Relationship with WHO.” BBC News, May 30, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Bender et al.. “COVID-19: A Pandemic Scenario C3i eBook Edition.” C3i Magazine, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Nearly Any Other Country.” The Washington Post, July 21, 2020. Accessed September 2, 2020.
Collins, Michael et al. “Fact Check: Trump Claims Coronavirus Tests Are Widely Available. They Are Not.”
USA Today, April 25, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
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Fox, Maggie et al. “Trump Decision to Leave WHO Endangers Global Health, Medical Groups Say.”
CNN.com, May 29, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Michigan Health. The University of Michigan, March 11, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
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Goldberg, Michelle. “Trump to Governors: I’d Like You to Do Us a Favor, Though.” The New York Times,
March 31, 2020, A27. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Kaplan, Sheila and Katie Thomas. “Despite Promises, Testing Delays Leave Americans ‘Flying Blind’.”
The New York Times, April 7, 2020, A16. Online version updated April 21, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Warnings in Daily Briefings.” CNN.com, April 27, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
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Leacock, Matt. “No Single Player Can Win This Board Game. It’s Called Pandemic.” New York Times,
March 26, 2020, p. A23. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Meredith, Sam. “Flattening the Coronavirus Curve: What This Means and Why It Matters.” CNBC,
March 19, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Reichert, Corinne. “Trump Terminates US Relationship with the WHO.” CNET, May 29, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Rieder, Rem. “Trump’s Statements About the Coronavirus.” FactCheck.org, March 18, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2020.
Shear, Michael D. et al. “The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to COVID-19.” The New
York Times, March 29, 2020, p. A1. Accessed May 31, 2020.