Home Feature During the pandemic, some Georgia Tech students are gaming to slow the spread of COVID-19

During the pandemic, some Georgia Tech students are gaming to slow the spread of COVID-19

by Maija Ehlinger

In 2020, a lot goes into answering questions like ‘should I go get groceries?’ or ‘when is my office going to open up?’

For a group of Georgia Tech engineers and media professionals, these questions offer a unique design problem. And it’s a design problem they think they can help solve through the art and science of video games.

As universities shut down and traditional summer internships dried up due to COVID-19, ten students from across departments and specialties came together in Georgia Tech’s Digital Interactive Liberal Arts Center (DILAC) to build games that help players understand the complexity behind some of the most-asked questions of 2020. 

During a summer competition through Indcor, a European organization exploring complexity and interactive narrative, the team created two interactive games, Essential Workers and Dino Store.

Both Essential Workers and Dino Store gamify everyday decisions made during the pandemic to “connect large scale trends to personal decisions,” says Janet Murray, Ph.D., Georgia Tech professor of interactive media and Associate Dean for research at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

Essential Workers is a platform where single or multiple players walk through the real-world choices workers have to make about staying healthy, paying bills, and going to work. 

“At its core, Essential Workers is about the dilemmas that this country and our communities are asking of its essential workers. These people have to go to work, and might be spreading COVID. What do you do when you put yourself in these people’s shoes?” said Colin Stricklin, one of the PhD students working on the project.

Stricklin, an English major whose research now focuses on collaborative gaming, built the initial logic for the game. He told Hypepotamus that the power of gaming is that it helps people understand their role in larger societal issues. 

“We’re looking at how much impact an individual can have on a particular community – not necessarily on the entirety of the curve of COVID, but on the people that they know,” said Stricklin. “We built a cooperative experience that allows people to see where they fit into the system.”

Similarly, Dino Store is a video game that drives hyper awareness about how decisions can impact COVID-19 infection rates at grocery store. 

Dino Store players work through real-life simulations of going to the grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Murray, the games are a way to address the “lack of understanding of the general public about the relationship between individual choices to policy decisions.” The games are designed to make scientific principles around coronavirus accessible to different age groups.

While the teams will continue to iterate on the games throughout the semester with the hopes of bringing them to more users, their technology is now powering over 400 other teams looking to slow the spread of COVID through video games. 

Jamming the Curve, is a slow jam in collaboration with Georgia Tech, the National Academy of Arts and Sciences’ LabX, and Indiecade. Teams are asked to create a game that addresses COVID-related themes such as spread of infection, misinformation, vaccine distribution or community inequity.  

The Georgia Tech DILAC team built and contributed the simulation engines for game designers to build on top of for the slow jam. 

Videos from experts across multiple academic and professional spheres are available to help game designers understand and build their models off of real-world COVID-19 problems. 

Jamming the Curve ends on October 1, and five winners will receive $1,000 each from LabX and a chance at a $20,000 game development grant.

For the Georgia Tech students behind these games, slowing the spread of COVID-19 takes an interdisciplinary team. By leveraging programmers, epidemiologists, and game designers, the teams believe their platforms can help players better understand how their real-life decisions impact those around them.

For Stricklin, games provide key teaching opportunities during these uncertain times. “In game design, empathy is a fraught term to use, because it’s hard to say you really understand the experience of someone else after playing a thirty minute game. But it’s at least asking you to consider and contextualize what your decision making process has to look like.”

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