Games That Teach You Something About Public Health, by Beth Skwarecki

PLOS blogs – Reading is great, but sometimes it’s more fun to learn by playing. Here are a few games that will end up teaching you something about public health:

Screenshot from Spent game

Spent: This game is for anybody who feels like they know how they would live if they were poor. Just don’t buy as much stuff, right? The game, created by an ad agency for Urban MInistries of Durham, starts you off with $1000 in the bank and asks you to choose a job. From there, you have 30 days’ worth of expenses and decisions. You win if you can make it through the month without going broke.

The game was informative, not just because of the statistics and facts sprinkled throughout, but because it hit hard emotionally. I won (one of the times I played it), and was even able to afford to help a relative buy medication toward the end, and take a community college course that could help me earn more money in the future. But to get there, I had to forgo health insurance, stop paying my gas bill, deny my kid the opportunity to participate in a sport (I couldn’t afford the uniform and physical), and when my pet got sick, it was cheaper to put him down than to pay for treatment.

For some decisions, you can ask a friend for help (to do laundry at their place for free, for instance)–but that required posting to Facebook or Twitter, something I hate to do because who wants to annoy their friends or explain to their friends what they’re doing? Point taken.

Screenshot of Vax game

Vax: This is a short, fast-paced game that pits you against an infectious disease. Your playing field: a network of susceptible people.

You get a head start, with a limited number of vaccinations you can give before the disease starts to spread. When you vaccinate somebody, they drop out of the network, their dot disappearing and the network breaking apart. Once the outbreak begins, your only tool is quarantine, which likewise drops people out of the network.

Strategies that win: vaccinating (or quarantining) people who have the most connections, which has the biggest impact on the route the disease can travel. If you can completely split the network into pieces, that helps you too. But beware: When you reach the “hard” level, you’ll find that some people in the network refuse to be vaccinated. The game was developed by Marcel Salathe’s epidemiology research group.



Gut Check – This one was designed by microbiologist Jonathan Eisen. It’s a “real” game, the website says, but “one might accidentally learn about concepts such as antibiotic resistance, hospital-acquired infections, prebiotics, probiotics, opportunistic infections and more.”

In this card game (which regretfully I have not played yet), you and friends each try to develop your own microbiome, filling it with beneficial species—but you can also play pathogens on your opponents, pass around antibiotic resistance plasmids, and spread germs in crowded places with the “airplane trip” and “go to work sick” cards. There’s even a homeopathy card for those turns when you’d rather not play anything at all.

The game is available as free downloads to print, and the makers are working on a professionally printed version too.

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