Do Epidemiologists Play COVID-19 Computer Games After Work?

I’m guessing that during a pandemic most Epidemiologists will barely have time to sleep, so time in-front of the X-Box will be limited. But this is a serious question.

Nobody will be surprised to hear that a bundle of COVID-19 related computer games have emerged in the last few months. Most of them ‘shovelware’. But what I am wondering is:

  1. Does playing a computer game help with your job (Epidemiologists included)?; and
  2. Can the data generated by playing these games help generate wider insight and learning?
Source: Plague Inc EVOLVED Computer Game You Tube Trailer.

Lets start with some Gavin and Stacey (the much loved TV show based in Barry Island). There’s a memorable scene involving the group travelling between Barry Island and Essex, on Dave’s Coaches, driven by Dave. It’s a fair distance, so naturally they stop for a comfort break at a Motorway Service Station.

When it’s time to get back on the road Dave is missing. Someone finds him sitting in the amusement arcade playing a racing car simulation game. Dave’s response, “I needed a break from the driving…”

This is not as confusing as it seems. Apparently people will spend a day at work driving trucks, and the evening doing the same on a computer game called Euro Truck Simulator. I kid you not.

There’s a computer simulation game for everything. Just to be clear, what I’m talking about here is simulation games. A simulation of the ‘real’ world where you; make decisions, do things and influence the outcome of events. This isn’t FIFA or X-box ‘shoot-em’ ups’ that kids spend their lives playing… just so their parents have something to moan about.

These simulation games have been around for years and cover just about every topic you can imagine. A search of ‘simulation games’ on Steam (the ‘go to’ marketplace for serious computer gamers) returns over 13,000 results.

Focusing on the ‘real’ world is what interests me; a few titles with a ‘public service improvement’ angle catch my eye:

  • Prison Architect – design, build and operate your own prison. I’ve written about this before, as an approach to improving sustainable decision making (link here).
  • Hospital Manger / Project Hospital / Two Point Hospital. There are a few of these. The basic idea is to design and manage your hospital to ‘maximise patient flow’ (and cure them).
  • Democracy 3. Testing your capabilities as a political leader. This one feels a bit more sophisticated. It requires players to handle the demands of several policy areas, finances and the voters.
  • Plague Inc Evolved. This is where it gets really interesting… The basic idea of the game is to use pathogens to destroy all human life. Public health epidemiology in reverse. I’d suggest you watch the video trailer above rather than have me explain.

But Plague Inc Evolved is MASSIVE! Some statistics:

  • Over 130 Million players
  • 18,000 players per hour (peak time)
  • 30,000+ reviews on Steam. You need to have played a game for over an hour to leave a Steam review. That’s a lot of (mostly positive) engagement.

Q1. So, does playing computer simulations help with your job? Just four words in response: AIRLINE. PILOT. FLIGHT. SIMULATOR.

If anyone is a bit skeptical about this, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the military take computer simulation exercises very seriously. OK, they don’t call them games, but everyone knows that lots of technology starts out on the military and then filters out into society. In my view the William Gibson quote “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” applies. Computer simulation games as a requirement of your job are coming…

Q2. Can the data generated playing these games help generate wider insight and learning? Instinctively, I’m saying yes.

Think back to Prison Architect (link here) which has millions of players running millions of prisons. The prisons created range from the terrible to perfect, both deliberate and accidental. Among all of these simulations there should be enough data to work out what a good prison looks like.

There must also be an opportunity to create a useful ‘decision support tool’ from all of this data. Something that helps players with any situation they encounter, “If I do the following, what sort of things could happen…?”

The big question is, when rather than how. When will there be a version of Democracy 3 that Government Officials and Politicians can use to test their thinking, before they take a big decision?

So, do Epidemiologists play COVID-19 computer games? I don’t have a definite answer on this. But, with 130 Million players of Plague Inc Evolved, from a statistical perspective the answer is probably yes – but maybe not at the moment.

If you are still skeptical, it’s worth noting that some people in the Epidemiological community do take some computer simulation games seriously. In 2013 James Vaughan, the creator of Plague Inc Evolved was invited to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention facility in Atlanta, to talk about the game. You can read about (here) it in this Public Health Matters blog on the CDC website.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Computer simulation exercises (aka games) are already used to help people improve how they do their jobs.
  2. Some people also do it for fun / relaxation.
  3. The data generated could (if we thought about it) support better decision making and improvement in public services.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

5 Responses

  1. A great post Chris and chimes with my theory about why Animal Crossing became the best selling game during lockdown. I think it helped simulate the world we had left behind (walking around performing largely inconsequential tasks like shopping, saying hi to neighbours and doing repetitive work!). But there are also lessons in how it represents the community we’d like to see and how that is being built by millions of people – for free! A community where generally looking after each other is rewarded and promoted, and is focused on positive outcomes. My Animal Crossing house is tidier than my real one. My garden is still bloody awful though.

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