Serious gaming: can video games turn us into public health players?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

May 28th, 2019

Gary Finnegan

‘Gamification is helping engage the public in major global health challenges by mixing education with fun’

Games can capture the imagination and engage people on an emotional and intellectual level­­ in ways that other communication strategies cannot. The best-known games in infectious diseases – such as Pandemicand Plague Inc.– have found ways to motivate players to learn about outbreaks and how they spread.

More games are on the way, while virtual reality technologies (VR) promise to allow researchers to create experiences that immerse citizens into scenarios that deepen their understanding of epidemiology and immunisation.

In Pandemic, players are faced with outbreaks of four diseases in different regions of the world. Their task, in taking on the roles of doctors, scientists and operations experts, is to cooperate with other players to discover cures before it’s too late.

A new report by the International Centre on Longevity (UK) on the use of technology in improving vaccine uptake says there is emerging evidence that ‘gamification’ can help influence how people feel about vaccination.

The report, Data, Bots and Drones, points to a scientific study of parents and children in Italy exploring how smartphone apps can shape opinion on MMR and the likelihood of vaccination. The study found a stronger intention to vaccinate among those that had used Plague Inc.  

Like Pandemic, Plague Inc. simulates the spread of infectious diseases around the world. But instead of playing the role of saviour battling outbreaks, each player assumes the identity of a deadly disease. They must find the most effective strategies to spread around the world and become the first to wipe out humanity.

These and other games have attracted large and committed followings of tens of millions of players.

Black and white controller

Virtual reality (VR) technologies may also have a role in engaging the public in how outbreaks occur – and can be prevented.  Initial tests suggest VR simulations engage people and encourage vaccine uptake.

‘One of the challenges we often face in the world of vaccination is getting people to imagine what it’s like to have an infectious disease and to transmit it to others,’ Nowak says. ‘What VR can do is reduce the need to rely on people’s imagination. Instead, you can give people an experience of how it feels to be infected with flu and protected against flu.’

More games are in development looking at everything from flu pandemics to the impact of antimicrobial resistance.

Have you played games or used apps that helped you understand infectious diseases? Comment below  


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