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Five Games To Play After Watching Contagion

These games are fun but also have important lessons to teach about infectious diseases

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A screenshot from The Great Flu, an online game.

I’m looking forward, with some trepidation, to seeing the movie Contagion, which comes out in theaters tomorrow. The subject is scarier than any made-up horror flick–a realistic scenario of a killer pandemic virus. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University and an expert consultant on the new film, gave me real reason to worry about the scenario dreamed up by the moviemakers, telling Salon: “We know that if we were to have some sort of an outbreak—or pandemic, worse yet—in the United States, we don’t at present have the tools that are required to rapidly ramp up some sort of a strategy for making vaccines and distributing them. Those are just the cold, hard facts.” After watching Contagion, we’re all going to either want to hide away in our homes and/or start calling our congresspeople to take action so we’re better prepared for something like this.

Or we could just play games. Here are five games to play after watching the movie:

Sneeze: The goal of this mini online game is to sneeze at just the right time and in just the right direction to transfer a virus to others who then transfer it to others and so on, eventually reaching as many individuals as possible. It’s a simple demonstration of how easy it is to transmit a virus when people don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze (and one out of four people in one study didn’t bother).

Pandemic, The Board Game: In this cooperative game, two to four players work together to cure four diseases. Each player takes on a role—such as scientist or medic—and on each turn travels the world, treating people, building research centers and finding cures for the diseases. If you find the cures, everyone wins. If not, you’re all dead. The message of the game is that if this happens in real life, we’re all going to have to work together to fight a pandemic or we’ll all end up dead.

Pandemic 2: This is another mini online game (and not related to the board game, despite the name), and the goal is to wipe out the world. Pick a virus, bacteria or parasite and let it loose. As more people become infected (and eventually die), you earn points that you can use to buy new traits for your disease, such as symptoms, drug resistance and modes of transmission. Can you evolve your disease faster than humans can develop and deploy a vaccine? This game excels at demonstrating how the various traits of a disease can affect where and how quickly it spreads and how virulent and deadly it becomes.

The Great Flu: Choose from one of five viruses (difficulty levels) in this online game and then pick through a selection of strategies to defeat it. You can stockpile vaccines and antiviral medicines, spend money on research facilities and teams, shut down schools or airports, distribute face masks, or isolate infected individuals. Trying to contain the disease in a single country is not easy, and the numbers of infected and dead can quickly pile up. This game is an interesting simulation of some of the realistic options available to those fighting a pandemic disease.

Killer Flu: This game, from the U.K. Clinical Virology Network, should give us all a little hope. The UK CVN developed the game, in part, to demonstrate just how hard it is for a flu virus to mutate, spread and kill. And that adds a layer of difficulty to the game, in which you try to make a flu virus spread from person to person and city to city, infecting as many people as possible, and makes it that much more fun.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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