The following piece was written for PAXsims by Patrick Dresch. Patrick is based in Salisbury (UK), and is interested in the application of board games as training tools for emergency and disaster response. In 2019 he completed an MSc in crisis and disaster management at the University of Portsmouth, supported by a dissertation investigating the potential for cooperative board games to be used to train emergency responders in interoperability. He has also had the opportunity to test the integration of game mechanisms with table top and live simulation exercises by designing and delivering exercises as a volunteer with the humanitarian response charity Serve On.
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist or expert in public health. I do, however, train for water rescue and coordination support with a humanitarian response organisation in the UK. I also enjoy board games, particularly cooperative ones, and think they hold great potential as training tools. This has led me to look not only at using boardgames to train responders, but also to explore if game mechanisms can be incorporated into more traditional table-top exercises. Examples of this include using elements of chance to encourage participants to explore risk, a paced delivery of information to practice developing situational awareness, and using game pieces to encourage engagement and a playful approach to problem solving (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Serve On volunteers taking part in Exercise: Small World (Dresch, 2019).
I still enjoy playing games for fun, and still return regularly to Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2008) which introduced me to the concept of cooperative board games (Figure 2). It is also a relatively easy game to teach, and I find I bring it out regularly with new gamers. Recently, as I have been following Covid-19 in the news I have been thinking more about the gameplay inPandemic and how well it reflects what is being reported with fairly simple mechanisms. Although Matt Leacock was inspired by Ebola, a disease with a much higher fatality rate than Covid-19, Pandemic is still able to demonstrate some of the difficulties faced by those planning the current response. For instance, although it is tempting to focus on the disease cubes in the game, this is only a time saving measure allowing players to collect the cards they need to find the “cures.” This may be likened to the use of quarantines and travel restrictions in the Covid-19 response, which slows the spread of the disease and gives epidemiologists and planners time to prepare.
Figure 2: Initial setup of Pandemic (Z-Man Games 2008).
Although I think Pandemic can be an engaging way to practice communication and coordination, I do not think it provides me, as a member of the public, with practical information on hygiene and self-isolation which may be of benefit in the current situation. I therefore wonder why I am drawn to play Pandemic at this time, while anecdotally I am aware that others find it off-putting. It should be noted that this is not merely disinterest on the part of others, but phrases such as “not sure if I could stomach playing it right now” could be considered as revulsion. Having not carried out a wider survey, I have no idea if I am an outlier or if people with an interest in emergency planning and response tend to have a different attitude than casual gamers.
Moreover, my renewed interest in Pandemic is not simply related to Covid-19 but similarly in encouraging my friends to play Pandemic: Rising Tide (Z-Man Games, 2017) in what has been reported as the wettest February in the UK since 1862 by the Met Office. If you are unaware, Pandemic: Rising Tide (Figure 3) uses similar mechanisms to Pandemic to simulate flooding in the Netherlands, requiring players to build dikes and pumping stations as they carry out civil engineering projects (requiring five cards of the same colour). The focus here is not on a water rescue response, although there is an optional population rule set, and therefore has limited similarity the flood response exercise I designed. Nonetheless, I find the theme and gameplay engaging, and am inspired to play it at the moment.
Figure 3: Initial setup of Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017).
In a year which has brought an almost weekly succession of storms to the UK (Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge) and associated flooding, I come back to wondering why I am drawn to these games at the moment rather than a more escapist, happy theme? Unlike with the Covid-19 response, I could potentially be involved in flood response work and have been on standby repeatedly, waiting to hear if I will be heading off to another part of the country. Both situations, however, involve waiting for news to find out how I may be affected by wider events. My speculation is that by playing these games I am, to some degree, re-affirming my own agency. That is to say, playing these games gives me a feeling of control which I am lacking in real life.
If this is the case, could playing suitably themed games be of benefit to the wider community of responders? I would certainly be interested to hear if others have had similar renewed interest in games with topical themes, and if there may also be a psychological benefit for responders playing these games after an incident. As noted earlier though, some people appear to feel a degree of revulsion at the idea and I am not advocating making people play games which make them feel uncomfortable or bring up trauma. Perhaps someone who works in psychology or counselling would like to comment and take this further?