Pandemic planning inspires online game

As uncertainty over the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ virus spreads around the world, a Hawaii-based project is resorting to an innovative strategy to engage people in protecting themselves and their communities: online gaming.

Designers at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies (HRCFS) are staging a collaborative game called Coral Cross, using game techniques to encourage participants across the islands, and beyond, to become better informed and share their views about the health crisis, including priority groups for an eventual vaccine.

“The only thing that spreads faster than a virus is information,” said project lead Stuart Candy. “Players will take concrete action trying to outpace swine flu, by spreading pandemic-preparedness knowledge faster than the disease can travel.”

Commissioned by the Hawaii Department of Health in 2008, and funded by the US federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Coral Cross was originally intended to simulate the effects of a near-future global influenza outbreak on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and to collect critical public feedback. At the time, would-be players were generations removed from the experience of a pandemic, so the designers chose to create a ‘playable scenario’ to immerse people in a hypothetical global flu pandemic.

However, in late April, just weeks before the game was scheduled to launch — and with other parts of the Hawaii Health Department’s pandemic preparedness effort already live — an astonishing coincidence occurred. The real flu crisis struck. “The day after our production team filmed a mock pandemic press conference set in 2012, we were watching a real one,” said Candy, “It made our alternate reality premise redundant, and called for an urgent change of strategy.”

HRCFS is now retrofitting Coral Cross to ‘game’ the current swine flu crisis, and although the launch date remains unchanged, the project now aims to support real-life pandemic preparedness against the backdrop of current events. In late May, the public will be able to decode pandemic-related health information, collaborate around emergency preparedness — and potentially influence policy. Although the strain of H1N1 currently circulating is less deadly than feared at first, the World Health Organization and CDC have cautioned that it is infecting people of all ages, and a mutation in the fall or winter could see a fiercer strain take hold in a subsequent pandemic ‘wave’.

The genre of so-called ‘serious games’ offers an increasingly popular way to engage and inform participants around hypothetical situations, and to prepare for alternative futures. In recent years, ‘Alternate Reality Games’ like After Shock and World Without Oil have proved effective in helping people imagine how their lives could be affected by large-scale systemic changes, such as an earthquake or oil crisis. Building on this genre, and with years of experience consulting on alternative futures, the HRCFS team spent months of research and development creating a plausible scenario, with accompanying media and artifacts from their hypothetical pandemic.

In the spotlight was the Coral Cross of Oahu, a fictional emergency preparedness and response agency, which was established in September 2011 after a category 5 hurricane hit the island. “The Coral Cross of Oahu was imagined as a grassroots network, a product of Obama-era public service and web savvy, organizing community responses ahead of large-scale government intervention,” explains designer Matthew Jensen. “It also played on current trends in social media and gameplay to encourage vigilance in the face of a long-term pandemic threat – perhaps an idea ahead of its time.”

These core principles, part of the narrative pre-design, now guide the redesign process. “Coral Cross switched from being an Alternate Reality Game to an Emergent Reality Game when the pandemic emerged as a real threat,” adds Jensen. While the design team has aimed to make this a fun, rewarding play experience, they also see it as an opportunity to provide real service to communities, families, and health authorities, spreading knowledge and responsible behavior in the midst of an actual health crisis.

“The Coral Cross suddenly went from being a future story element to a prototype for what a real, bottom-up emergency response could look like,” says project consultant Jake Dunagan. “So, as the future invaded our present, we found ourselves asking ‘What would Coral Cross do?'”

According to experience designer Nathan Verrill, the Coral Cross would motivate citizens through whatever means possible. “Even in the face of a real threat, gameplay influences behavior in a fun and engaging way,” says Verrill. “We believe that gaming principles will help keep participants focused over a longer period of time, helping spread useful knowledge, while we crowdsource ideas and feedback that can influence public policy.”

Though the H1N1 pandemic may not yet evolve into the global catastrophe that the 2012 ‘alternate reality’ narrative originally related, the designers are confident that their Emergent Reality Game will expose citizen-players to key possibilities, encouraging the kind of collaboration and skills that will help to keep them safe, whatever the future may hold.

Time will tell.

Participants can pre-register for Coral Cross at

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