Pandemic: Gaming in a Biology Seminar Course

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with one of our Biology faculty, Amy Briggs, to discuss a game, Pandemic, that she had been using in one of her classes. This semester she is teaching a class, "Biology, War and Human Rights." In this course students investigate the biological aspects of radiological, biological, and chemical weapons and examine cases of when these have been used in human history. They then connect what happens to our cells when these sorts of weapons are used, taking into account the historical context, and discuss the ethics and human rights related to the use of these and how we can protect people.

I wanted to find out why Professor Briggs chose this game, how it fits into her course, and the learning goals it helps meet. I was also interested in the experience she and her students had using the game. Some of the things from the interview that stuck out were that the game was a simulation for what the class was studying, that it allowed the students to apply what they were learning to a 'real world" example, that the game facilitated deep conversation and that they were able to have fun.

If you would like to read more about the specifics about this game and how it was used, please read the interview transcript below.

Jedidiah Rex: Can you explain what Pandemic is for us?
Amy Briggs: Its a cooperative board game, meaning that the players are not competing against each other, everyone works as a team, and you either lose the game as a team or win as a team. Its a board game with a map of the world and it simulates the outbreak and spread of four different fictional infectious diseases. The players, there's up to four players, and they randomly choose roles, and they're all members of the CDC and its their job to stop and control the spread of the infection, find cures, and eradicate the diseases. Its a simulation of infectious disease spread and how people might go about preventing and stopping the spread of disease.

"It didn’t feel like learning. It didn’t feel like class."

JR: Why did you choose to use Pandemic? What learning objectives does that meet?
AB: It struck me that this is in fact a model or simulation of infectious disease transmission and it fits nicely with a learning objective of mine, that students can apply their knowledge of the biology of this concept, which in this case is an infectious disease caused by a pathogen, and their knowledge of the methods used by epidemiologists to investigate and stop outbreaks -- how can they apply their knowledge to a completely new situation they wouldn’t have actually otherwise encountered in the classroom. Another reason I chose this game for class is that this class can get a bit heavy and depressing, reading about the worst examples of human behavior. This was a nice opportunity to think about what we are learning and the content but in a more lighthearted context.

JR: How have students responded to the game?
AB: They have responded very well. It’s a complicated game and I had them read the manual before coming to class, and I went through the basics of the rules before they got started. I saw a lot of skeptical faces (I teach at 8 o'clock on Friday morning) but as they got going they got used to the rules, and they all got quite into it. I was surprised every group actually decided to start another game when they finished the first round even though they didn’t have to. It really triggered a lot of good discussions in the groups about how this model does or does not accurately portray the biology of infections and the epidemiological methods used.

"It really triggered good discussion about the topic, 
at a deeper level than I was expecting."

That was the other part of this. When they were done they had a worksheet to fill out as a group identifying and explaining any inaccuracies they find with the game and what that means. How are diseases spread? What are common modes of transmission? Does the game reflect that? How do epidemiologist detect outbreaks? Then they had to find a way to modify the game to make it more accurate, yet still fun to play. I think that was a nice sort of wrapping up part of it. So they applied their knowledge to analyze this model but then they had to try and modify it while still working within the rules of the model itself. It was really fun. It went really well.

JR: Were there any unforeseen outcomes or surprises?
AB: Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it really triggered good discussion about the topic, at a deeper level than I was expecting. It makes me want to find more ways to use games, which are in a lot of ways simulations of something that happens in life, and then be able to analyze what the rules are for that simulation and how they relate to the actual events themselves. It made me want to find more ways to use games in class.

JR: What’s been your favorite part?
AB: You know, it didn’t feel like learning. It didn’t feel like class. I want to try to have it be that way more and more. It almost felt I was tricking them into learning, but it was a great method for encouraging them to think deeply about this while not thinking that they’re doing that.

JR: Do you have plans for the future, for other courses?
AB: I don’t for anything new. So theres’ one other game I use in my courses and it's actually an online game that's called “Pandemic” but its totally unrelated to this board game. Pandemic II, is a little flash game online and I used it in both "Emerging Diseases" and "Microbiology," and its again a map of the world, but in this case you’re the pathogen, and your goal is to basically kill the whole world population. So there’s always students who get creeped out by it, but one thing I like is that it reflects the biology of bacteria, viruses, and eukaryotic pathogens because they all have different reproduction rates which affects their evolution rate. That’s how the game works, you accumulate evolution points over time to suddenly new traits arise, you’re resistant to the treatment, or things like that, so its another opportunity to have a little fun and apply their understanding.

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