A Chance to Run a City Besieged by a Virus
Navigating life during the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not fun and games. But, as one Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD) graduate student shows us, it actually can be a game.
Shano Liang, along with a good friend from China and Jingru Chen, another IMGD graduate student, spent the spring semester designing a game built upon the very real COVID-19 pandemic. As natives of Wuhan—where COVID-19 was first identified—Liang and her team members designed the game to give players an idea of what it might be like to be a government official trying to balance saving human life and the economy while battling a deadly viral outbreak.
Liang shares how she and her teammates developed the game.
HERD: How did you come up with a COVID-19-themed game?
Shano Liang: In the middle of February, my team and I saw a plague transmission video on bilibili.com (a Chinese website much like YouTube). The video showed a visible simulation of a viral spread among people who were going out in public and wearing masks, similar to what was happening in real time in China. People needed to go back to work after the Chinese Lunar New Year was extended—the video called attention to pandemic prevention after they began going back to work.
At the same time, during my spring semester, I was doing an independent study with Brian Moriarty, (professor of practice, computer science), on the value of uncertainty and randomness in game design. When I shared our game idea with him, he was enthusiastic and encouraged us to finish it as soon as possible. The timeliness of a game was crucial for its publicity, so my team members, Jiadi Zuo, a senior game programmer and friend of mine from China, and Jingru Chen, an IMGD graduate student, and I decided to make this into a game. I focused on designing the game system, while Jiadi concentrated on data visualizing, and Jingru worked on simulating the transmission model.
HERD: How does the game work?
SL: In our game, called Simulator: Fighting Against Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia, we look at the COVID-19 pandemic from another angle—how can we, as conscientious people, prevent and control the deadly virus with minimal loss? (Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia is an obsolete name of COVID-19. We used it to avoid being offensive to anyone who has been affected in COVID-19).
Our game is a single-player strategy game. A player takes the role of a government official in “City W” starting from January 1, 2020. The player’s mission is to guide local disease prevention and control work, as well as take care of the people at the epicenter of the ongoing outbreak with minimal loss in human life and economic growth. Players have to balance news and media, healthcare and research, and city management as the virus spreads, while they also maintain medical supplies and citizen attitudes (satisfaction, panic, awareness, etc.). The pandemic outbreak conditions, daily news, and public attitude correlate with each other and provide a realistic experience similar to what we’re experiencing in real life.
HERD: What is the object of Simulator: Fighting Against Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia?
SL: It's a serious, objective strategy game that reflects how city administrators can affect pandemic control and prevention, and involves information collected from actual news sources and scientific data. As a result, the designed object of our game is for players to experience the dilemma that many governments are facing with COVID-19: little information is known about the spreading pneumonia because research takes time; people, like students heading home for break, need to travel; and people want to spend time together like they do during the Chinese Lunar New Year. Any careless or reckless choice made in the game would cause a huge disaster for all those people.
We have also prepared various endings based upon the strategies players choose in the game while they battle the novel coronavirus pneumonia. For example, players can choose strategies to achieve “herd immunity,” which may be considered more laissez-faire, or adopt a strict quarantine policy at the beginning; each would have a totally different experience and outcome.
HERD: Were you affected by COVID-19? Did that play into the game's design?
SL: Coincidentally, all three members of our team are from Wuhan, and were all touched by the pandemic.
I arrived in Worcester on January 13 from Wuhan. At that time, COVID-19 was still named “pneumonia of unknown cause.” Identifying it as “novel coronavirus,” in addition to the lack of information about its genomic sequence, made people not think twice about it. However, ten days after my arrival in Worcester, Wuhan went into lockdown. A couple of days after that, my father said he had a fever, dry cough, and tiredness. I was nervous because my father is nearly 60 years old, which meant he was highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Fever clinics in hospitals were overwhelmed, but, luckily, things got back under control. My father was diagnosed; he received proper treatment; and after eventually testing negative and quarantining for 14 days, he went home.
Jiadi worked from home in Wuhan from January until May. Due to the city lockdown and suspended traffic, he had to live separate from his wife, to whom he was recently married. To deal with his loneliness, he worked on our game during his weekends and spare time.
Jingru is a new graduate student in IMGD. She was an undergraduate senior at the start of the pandemic, and she should have spent her final semester in the laboratory to finish her thesis—but she was stuck at home.
Although we were affected by COVID-19 in different ways, we didn’t mix any personal feelings into the game.
HERD: What will players take away from Simulator: Fighting Against Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia?
SL: Our main goal for this game is to provide a platform for people to replay the strategies that were actually put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic in a serious game format. My team members and I want to help people understand that mathematics is key to controlling a pandemic, not politics or economics. We want to prove that games can do more than just entertain, and games can achieve higher goals, such as for educational purposes.
Finally, for me, I hope this game shows that our IMGD program doesn’t just train students to create entertainment.
–By Jessica Messier