You’re standing outside the grocery store, list in hand. It’s time to get supplies for your daughter’s birthday party. But as soon as you walk in, happy music drifting through the aisles, you realize they are everywhere: wheezing, sneezing, coughing customers. Your pleasant retail outing has just become a stressful exercise in strategic shopping and infection control.
This is the premise of Dino-Store, a video game created as part of IndieCade’s Jamming the Curve game design event by students in the Digital Integrative Liberal Arts Center (DILAC) in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.
“As a game, we aren’t just preaching what people should do,” said Terra Gasque of Savannah, a Ph.D. student in Digital Media who worked on the project. “We hoped to design something that would give users a chance to experience and, in our case, hopefully fail in a safe space to learn from.”
The event, co-produced by Georgia Tech, will bring together game designers, scientists, and mentors from around the world to “leverage the power of games” to promote behaviors that can slow the spread of Covid-19, according to Janet Murray, associate dean for research and Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC).
“Thinking about Covid-19 as a system that involves actions by the individual, the government, and the society as a whole is crucial to this moment, and this is something games can help us achieve,” Murray said. “Jamming the Curve is an important event that will bring together a hundred game designers, scientists, and game design mentors gathered by IndieCade and INDCOR, a European consortium focusing on exactly this topic: using interactive narrative approaches to understanding complex systems.”
In addition to Dino-Store, Georgia Tech students also developed Essential Workers, a multi-player game that puts a spotlight on the need for community cooperation in stopping Covid-19.
The games were designed as a summer project in the DILAC by students from the Graduate Program in Digital Media in LMC; the Computational Media program offered jointly by LMC and the College of Computing; and the Human-Computer Interaction program offered by LMC and the schools of Interactive Computing, Industrial Design, and Psychology.
A Georgia Tech student also designed the epidemiological model used in the games to determine players’ chances of getting infected. Marian Dominguez-Mirazo, a Ph.D. student in the College of Sciences, worked with the DILAC team as a part-time researcher over the summer.
The DILAC team has released both games, the epidemiological model that powers them, and an explanatory video to benefit developers participating in the game jam, which Georgia Tech is co-producing with IndieCade and the National Academy of Sciences’ LabX, Northeastern University’s Game Studio, Games for our Future, and INDCOR.
“Being part of a project that allows people from all ages and backgrounds to be able to learn about the risks and consequences of their actions in a situation such as the one we are living is very gratifying,” Dominguez-Mirazo said.
Making Hard Choices and Shopping Safely
Essential Workers plays out over three weeks in a community besieged by Covid-19. Players have to decide whether to go to work, shelter at home, get groceries, or go out for medical care, all while infections mount.
Going out increases your chances of getting sick. But you need money to pay rent and buy food and medical care, so you can’t always stay home. Players must work together to maintain social distancing and keep everyone physically and financially well: If anyone runs out of money or dies before the three weeks are up, everyone loses.
“We wanted to show how individual decisions during a pandemic could influence others in a community and vice versa,” said Kevin Xu Tang of Atlanta, a Master’s student in Digital Media . “Along the way, we also realized that we could use Essential Workers to show how brutally difficult it could be for some people to even survive the pandemic, whether financially or physically.”
In Dino-Store, players are tasked with staying healthy during a simple shopping trip. Players can choose among three stores: one that doesn’t follow any infection prevention rules, one that requires masks, and one that requires masks and limits the number of customers allowed inside.
Players have to navigate the store with limited visibility, trying to avoid other shoppers who might be infected while picking up cake ingredients, a roll of toilet paper, and a gift. Running into too many other customers could get you sick, as could idling for too long in the in-game store’s germ-laden air.
Playing Games Can Educate, Open Minds
These projects perfectly model the ability of games to help provide insight into experiences that cannot be captured with newspaper narratives or quantitative charts, Murray said.
“Games can be simulations of the world that entice us to try out alternate scenarios,“ said Murray, whose influential 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck remains essential reading for game design students, among others.
“This is exactly the kind of thinking we need to cultivate to cope with many 21st century challenges, such as systematic racism, ecological degradation from climate change, and managing pandemics,” she said. “We have to be able to see the same situation from multiple perspectives, to recognize multiple chains of causation, and to imagine alternate possibilities for the same scenarios.”
Students who worked on the games said they had to draw on a diverse pool of experiences and education in game design, engineering, computing, and narrative design to create games that help players understand the complexity of pandemic response and how what we do in our day-to-day lives can have far-reaching implications.
Tang said the work was especially complicated due to the pervasive effects of Covid-19.
“We had to do a lot of research and design iterations to make sure that whatever message we wanted to convey was not only scientifically accurate but also that we treated the pandemic and its victims with respect,” he said.
Other students involved in the project were Digital Media Ph.D. student Aditya Anupam, Jordan Graves, Colin Stricklin, and Yuchen Zhao; Digital Media Master’s student Mariam Mottari; Ryan Winstead, a Master’s student in HCI; and undergraduate student Computational Media student Drew Busch.
Jamming the Curve began Sept. 15. It runs through Oct. 1. LabX will award five winning teams $1,000 each and a chance at a $20,000 game development grant.