MAR 01, 2022 10:00 AM PST

Pandemic Simulation Games to Test Public Health Interventions

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we relied most on several mitigation measures to slow the spread of the virus and keep us safe, such as masking and social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. Until a vaccine became available, these were the best options available. Regular rates of mask wearing in particular, though an exceptionally polarizing topic, led to a decrease in COVID-19 infection rate, reinforcing their role in reducing viral transmission. 

A new study published in Science Advances outlines how a simulative “game” could be used to test the effectiveness of particular interventions and what might encourage engagement with these safe behaviors and mitigation strategies, particularly in the context of a pandemic.

The study followed 700 participants who played the researchers “game,” a simulative environment where players were either “sick” or “healthy.” Associations with COVID-19, specifically, were removed altogether from the game environment. All players started healthy, and then some were randomly turned “sick” to represent the start of an outbreak. From there, players were presented with a series of scenarios and tasks, giving them choices about what they would do in a pandemic, the kinds of choices they would make, and what would encourage them to engage in safe behaviors.

Researchers found that some strategies were more effective than others, focusing on five factors that could impact risking behaviors. They examined the following strategies, ranked from most effective at reducing risky behavior (1) to least effective (5):

  1. Clear, consistent, direct message that leaned on a sense of morality and moral reasoning.
  2. Models of how early transmission can lead to increased spreading.
  3. A simulator tool that would allow participants to get an idea of how certain behaviors might increase or reduce viral transmission.
  4. Sharing how many players were infected (this factor had no impact on participants choosing less risky behavior).
  5. Explaining the choices other participants were making (this factor actually led to an increase in riskier behavior.

Researchers hope their gamified approach could help policy makers and scientists study effective mitigation techniques and use that information to encourage less risky behaviors during the next pandemic. 

Sources: EurekaAlert!; Science Advances; PLOS ONE

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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