I.

I really like Matt Leacock’s Pandemic, a boardgame in which players work together to protect humanity from four world-devouring viruses. The game ranks up there with Settlers of Catan as a sure-fire “gateway drug” to German-style boardgames; it is thoughtfully designed, deeply polished, and has just the right amount of story world. Most everything about the game suits my idea of ‘fun’: strategic thinking, a healthy dose of variability from play session to play session, emergent complexity, cooperative play and thoughtful communication design.

Rather than rambling on about how much I like the game, I would like to use it as a lens for thinking about serious games.33 There is an increasing gold rush to serious games — the Apps for Healthy Kids initiative, an ever-growing number of conferences and festivals, the incredible amounts of foundation and grant money supporting their creation and study, and on and on. We are looking to games to solve societal problems, to free people from ignorance, to proverbially solve world hunger. But more often, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, to the causes we embrace and to games alike. We need to stop and reflect on whether or not games are really the best solution to the issues we fight for, and if they are, we need to do the real work to make the right games.

During his first Pandemic play session, Eric Zimmerman said something along the lines of “Pandemic is my new favorite serious game.” His comment made a great deal of sense to me— the game embodies many of the best qualities of serious games. It gives an abstracted overview of the process by which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention address epidemics. It encourages important collaboration and active listening skills. It provides a meaningful context for thinking about probability. The space of possibility of the game requires the development of strategies, learning the lessons of focusing on short-term issues at risk of allowing long-term problems to fester. These are all qualities that most any serious game designer would love to embed in their creations. Sadly, few manage to get anywhere close to this level of success.

I would like to use Pandemic as a vehicle for considering the four flawed assumptions made about serious games that alternately irk and depress me— first, that games are a form of media; second, that games can deliver messages; third, that games are simulations; and fourth, that videogames are the most suitable form of games for serious games to take.

II.

Pandemic is a boardgame in which two to four34 players cooperatively work to eradicate a group of four viruses spreading around the world before any one virus hits a tipping point or before there are eight virus outbreaks. The map comprises cities connected by travel routes overlaid with a ball and stick graph around which the players travel. Players move though four zones, each with their own color-coded virus — the blue of North America and Europe; the yellow of Central America and South America; the black of India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia; and the red of Asia.

Player cards and Infection cards are the two card types in the game. Player cards are composed of three distinct card types— City cards that are used to cure the four viruses and facilitate movement on the board; Epidemic cards that cause the infection engine of the game to speed up; and Special Event cards that grant players one-time actions that facilitate their quest to cure the four diseases.

The Infection cards function as the “engine” that spreads disease around the board. The Infection cards begin their work before the game even starts; the cities represented by the first three cards atop the shuffled Infection deck are assigned three virus cubes each, the cities on the next three cards are assigned two virus cubes each, and the next three are assigned one virus cube each. The nine used Infection cards are then placed in the Infection discard pile where they await the first epidemic.

The game begins with all player tokens on Atlanta, the home of the CDC. On their turn, each player can do four actions selected from a list of eight— move from their current city to an adjacent city; clear a virus unit from the city they occupy; expend a Player card to take a direct flight to the city represented on that card; build a Research Station on a location they occupy and for which they hold the corresponding Player card; move from one Research Station to another; cure a virus by playing five city cards of that virus’ color while in a city of that color; and finally, give a Player card to another player when both players are on the same city and the active player holds that city’s Player card.

Each player takes on a randomly selected role from a set of five— Dispatcher, Medic, Operations Expert, Researcher and Scientist. Each role provides a unique “special skill” for dealing with the containment and eradication of the viruses. For example, the Medic role can clear all virus units on a city at the cost of one action, and the Researcher can cure a virus with only four city cards (all other players must have five) of the corresponding color. In order to have a chance at winning, the players must cooperatively apply the unique strengths of their roles in order to maximize their ability to successfully eradicate all four viruses.

Once a player has completed her four actions for a turn, she does two things: draws two Player cards from the top of the Player card deck to add to her hand (and immediately discards as many cards as it takes to get down to a hand of seven), and then draws two, three or four Infection cards35 from the Infection deck to indicate which cities get an additional virus cube.

Any given city can hold no more than three virus units of any type. If, through the draw of an Epidemic card or through actions triggered by the Infection Cards, a city is assigned more than three virus units of one type, an Outbreak occurs. All adjacent cities gain an additional unit of that virus type. If any of these already have three of that virus unit color, then they too have an Outbreak.

Drawing from the Player deck is always fraught with anxiety, as interlaced with the City and Special Event cards are Epidemic cards. The Epidemic cards cause viruses to spread on the player’s current location, and tightens the loop on the occurrence of new virus cubes popping up on the already-infected cities by virtue of the shuffling of the already-played Infection cards in the discard pile.

The game is won when the players can cure all four viruses. The game ends when eight of these outbreaks have occurred. The game is lost when the entire deck of Player cards is used, when all of one color of virus cube are placed on the board, or when eight Outbreaks have occurred.

III.

Since the industrial revolution and the commodity culture it brought to bear, games have increasingly been treated as media products like books, movies and songs. The business models and patterns of consumption relating to books, magazines, movies and music are all based on a short cycle of release, consume and move on. It is into this model of consumer culture that videogames have positioned themselves, and in the process became a form of ephemera– quickly consumed with little or no expectation of lasting effect. But games are ever-changing, culturally-shaped practices that have more in common with square dancing, and, as Frank Lantz has pointed out, butterfly collecting36 than they do with passively-consumed entertainment products. And so the more we try to treat games like media, the less game-like they are.

This is a real issue for serious games — if we approach them like leisure products with the associated ‘empty calorie’ expectations, we are destined to fail. For the systemic exploration of a phenomenon to really sink in, we need our players to spend more time with our games. Most serious games are positioned in such an overtly didactic manner derived from linear media without a real consideration of the necessary design considerations of games as practices. This leads to the treatment of serious games as pamphlets or documentary films that serve up a productized point of view.

Yes, Pandemic is a product— a shrink-wrapped German-style boardgame— no getting around that. But like most German-style boardgames, it is designed as a serially revisited play space primed for replay. Purchasing Pandemic is more like buying a social practice than buying a sugary snack or taking a bitter pill that is eaten and quickly forgotten. Pandemic is the kind of game that provides a space for spending time with people, and a structure for players to get to know one another. The very rules of the game require players to engage with one another socially and intellectually in order to come up with the best possible approach to contain the four viruses before they destroy the world. Players learn from one another, give one another advice and work as a team to contain the viruses on the board, collect the cards necessary to cure the viruses and generally make the most of their roles and turns.37

A rhythm quickly emerges as players struggle against the four viruses, in large part due to the cooperative nature of the game. The player roles provide just enough distinction to give everyone a feeling of importance. At the same time, everyone is swept up in the cause — working together, suggesting strategies for using one another’s capabilities, collectively thinking through each player’s options, sometimes even planning a round or more ahead for all players.38

Pandemic is a game, through and through. It is not another consumer media product— it is a game that encourages repeated play sessions that are all very similar and yet made distinct by the ways play unfold around and through the mechanics and rules. For me, this is what a game is— a space to return to again and again to test myself, to engage with others, to have opportunity to do things that daily life does not permit. The average serious game lacks this depth, in large part due to the emphasis on content, and the product-oriented conception of games as medium and not a practice.

IV.

In his critique of Bioshock, Clint Hocking stated, “Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.”39 He coined the phrase ludonarrative dissonance to describe this— what happens when the narrative mapped onto a game does not work in concert with the game’s mechanics and goals. Hocking goes on to discuss the two ‘contracts’ a game makes with its player: the ludic contract, and the narrative contract. At first glance, these seem compatible with one another — game-wise, Bioshock is a first person shooter in which you are given the opportunity to engage with a Randian Objectivist exploration of the limits of self-interest threaded through with a narrative that explores a dystopian vision of a Randian Objectivist world gone rancid. The player’s role in the gameworld as enacted through the mechanics and goals, however, contradicts the Objectivist agenda of the narrative— the player is asked to help out Atlas, a character who rails against the Randian vision. This creates a dissonant, confusing play experience, as players looking for the optimal way to ‘beat’ the game will bump into the tension between the games mechanics, goals, theme and narrative.

Pandemic does a good job of pairing the relationship between the gameplay (using an action economy centered on movement, virus removal and card collection in order to cure the four viruses while working against the game’s Infection engine) and the theme of the game (a team of CDC professionals combat four simultaneous pandemics). The Infection engine drives the experience, with players carefully watching the spread of virus cubes via the Infection deck, players cringing with each draw of an Epidemic card, and the players’ strategizing to contain and eradicate the four diseases.

Within the flow of the game, a narrative unfolds, but not one that follows any strict predetermined, nuanced arc. Still, the bewildering array of possible play experiences all lead to one of two possible conclusions to the story arc — either the viruses overtake the world, or the players successfully cure the four viruses. Getting from the starting point with nine infected cities to one of these outcomes happens in very different ways from play session to play session. It is in this space of possibility that a rich player-driven experience unfolds.

Serious games have their own version of ludonarrative dissonance — what I will call ludopedagogical dissonance. There is often a disconnect between the theme of a serious game and the actual play experience and the assumed knowledge and experience it transfers to the player. Perhaps through a lack of understanding of games and their strengths, many people create games that attempt to use the form as yet another medium through which a point of view is disseminated. Games are not a secret language through which we can communicate with youth to make them understand the important things we have to tell them. Nor are they the newest multimedia spin on the old chocolate-coated cod liver oil trick that makes something ‘good for you’ seem ‘fun for you.’ The fact is games are not going to be good at explaining a single position or a set of facts in the same way a documentary film or a pamphlet or a poster might.

Paraphrasing James Paul Gee, games are excellent tools for preparing for future learning. I interpret this to mean that games can and do educate, but not in the ways traditional media do. And so a game intended to teach about the environmental impact of plastic wrap may really provide players with improved hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. Or a game about immigration may really make players better at answering multiple choice questions and optimizing their test-taking skills.

Consider Pandemic in this light. The game avoids ludopedagogical dissonance because it was designed to be a game rather than as a ludic pamphlet or a play-powered film strip. The premise of the game is containing and curing four virulent diseases by taking on the roles of five CDC employees. One might say the subject of the game is the methods by which the CDC controls and prevents disease, or the incredible complexities of containing disease.

Leacock does not seem to view the game as a tool for teaching players how to eradicate the next plague. Though the game does impart a logically consistent high-level abstraction of the CDC’s methods, that is not really the point. If you listen to Leacock discuss the game, he focuses not on the narrative conceit, but on the design of the mechanics, the balance of the roles and the tuning of the difficulty in achieving the win condition. These are all things relating to the play experience. Leacock seems to view the pandemic containment premise as the scaffolding players use to grasp the game’s goal and the mechanics enacted in its pursuit and as a tool for expressing the internal logic of the game system. The game still provides many insights and strengthens player skills — collective problem solving, probability analysis, decision-making within a tight choice space, and of course a high-level understanding of the way the CDC approaches pandemics.

Pandemic supports the idea that games have a premise and not a subject. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is an important point. A premise is something akin to the set up of an improvisational theater piece, and not a strict plot to be followed from beat to beat. In the course of following Pandemic’s premise, the players are, on the surface, wrestling with the containment and cure of a set of diseases. But they are really doing something else altogether. The players are exploring and working to navigate a ball and stick diagram overlaying a map and two sets of randomized cards with their only tools to fight back being an economy of eight shared actions and a set of unique, per-role actions.

V.

A friend of mine, the stop-motion animator M.T. Maloney, speaks of stop-motion animation being to film what poetry is to prose. Games are more like stop-motion animation or poetry than film. To strive for high-fidelity themes, to perfectly model a phenomenon, denies the potential of games, and in particular their expressive power; games need the freedom to take liberties, to bend and break the known models of the world. This is necessary to create a space of possibility within which play can unfold.

If you look under the hood, games are systems populated by objects with certain attributes that interact within a specified environment. While this might sound like the recipe for simulations, it is more than that in the case of games. With serious games, we can certainly attempt to accurately model our world and its phenomenon so that our audiences can grok them. But unless you have lots of time, money and expertise, games are not good at providing high fidelity models of phenomena. And even then, the role of the player pushes back on pure simulation. How can the player accurately model their role in the simulation without losing most of their agency and freedom?

In the case of Pandemic, there is a nominal amount of understanding developed around the fighting of pandemics by the CDC. The roles assumed by players roughly model the kinds of people working on containing and eradicating disease; the general process by which they go about the task— responding to the local spread of disease, tamping down hotspots, responding to unforeseen epidemics, developing strategies for containing and ultimately curing disease— is represented in a highly abstracted form. The genius mechanic for shuffling the played Infection cards and putting them at the top of the Infector draw pile every time an Epidemic card is played seems to approximate the likelihood of an already-infected region having additional outbreaks. But beyond this surface level detail embedded in the thematic skin of the game, there isn’t really that much in Pandemic to accurately model the process by which the CDC addresses virulent disease. If the CDC were ever to use the game as a training tool, I imagine Leacock would be horrified.

VI.

A big part of the problem with serious games is the assumption that videogames are the best approach. The reasons for this are complicated and are difficult to fully unwind, but there are a few core reasons: many of the funders of this sort of work are particularly interested in computing as a platform for enacting change; many of the people involved in making the games are involved in the videogame industry and videogame education; the target audience of most serious games is K-12 and college students, who are believed to live in a digital world. But objectively, none of these should obligate the creation of serious videogames. As much as computation can and has done to augment human intellect, the solution to every problem is not a serious videogame. Non-digital games are still a viable, sometimes more appropriate solution.

In the case of Pandemic, the game and the play experience it affords as a boardgame would suffer greatly from transposition to a videogame. The procedural characteristics of videogames would mask and obscure the most tangible and important contact points with the game’s systems. The interaction with the Infection and City cards as physical objects give a much more palpable engagement with the probabilities of epidemic outbreaks and the placement of virus cubes and the movement of player pawns create a direct connection to the gameworld. All of this would be stripped away and automated in a digital form. Sometimes we do not need or benefit from the advantages computation affords. Sometimes computation subtracts or reduces rather than augments. Pandemic is such a case.

VII.

Serious games can learn a good deal from Leacock’s game and other German-style board games: that games are practices, not products or media; that games are not a didactic form; that games are more than simulations; and that games are often better off in non-digital form. The bigger point is that Leacock approached the design project as a game. He wasn’t seeking to convince anyone of how or why the CDC should do their job. He was designing a board game that happens to lead to a number of different learning outcomes. If only serious games were approached the same way more often.

33 The term ‘serious games’ is increasingly viewed with suspicion with not completely satisfying alternatives including newsgames and applied games. For the purposes of this essay, I will stick with serious games.

34 Up to six if you add the expansion. Pandemic: On the Brink. I focus on the basic game in this essay.

35 The number depends on how many epidemics have occurred so far in the game.

36 Frank Lantz, “Doorknobs and Butterflies: Games After Art.” Art History of Games symposium, February 5, 2010. The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.

37 Most games I have played that end in a loss are immediately followed by another attempt to defeat the four viruses. It is hard to walk away from Pandemic without winning.

38 One criticism leveled against the game is that it can become a single player game even when four people are participating. It is true that a particularly strong-willed and vocal player can dominate the strategizing and decision making.

39 Clint Hocking. Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Clicknothing blog. October 7, 2007. http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html. (Accessed June 12, 2010). Tom Bissell has a good discussion in the chapter, “Far Cries,” in his book Extra Lives.