Monday, September 7, 2009

Sick Games

From phones to fluedo, has the dreaded H1N1 morphed from flu into fun with a glut of Internet games and role-playing, dice throwing contests competing for popularity? Eimear Vize takes a closer look at this infectious activity and wonders, if laughter is the best medicine, is game playing the latest oinkment?
It’s all a bit of a laugh, isn’t it? This Swine Flu business: Just a little fun. What’s the pig deal? Since Swine Flu first started hogged headlines in April, the Internet has become infected by a pandemic of bad jokes (did you know swine flu is spread by capitalist pigs?) and a rash of online games battling swine flu is now spreading faster than the virus itself. In its first week, the most high profile of them, Swinefighter, amassed more than three million plays, helped by the viral clout of Twitter and Facebook. At the time of going to press, Swinefighter laid claim to destroying in excess of 20.5 million viruses!
As facetious as they are graphically wicked, most of these games are created for pure entertainment value, however, some have been hailed as the ‘latest weapon’ in the war against swine flu, and a couple are even useful and constructive tools.
The latest and most practical of these techno delights, introduced to the world in September by those innovative people at Apple, is a new iPhone application, created by researchers at Children's Hospital Boston in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. It enables users to track and report outbreaks of swine flu on the ground in real-time.
The application, "Outbreaks Near Me," builds on the mission and proven capability of HealthMap, an online resource that collects, filters, maps and disseminates information about emerging infectious diseases, and provides a new, contextualised view of a user's specific location – pinpointing outbreaks that have been reported in the vicinity of the user and offering the opportunity to search for additional outbreak information by location or disease.
Additional functionality of Outbreaks Near Me is the ability to set alerts that will notify a user on their device or by e-mail when new outbreaks are reported in their proximity, or if a user enters a new area of activity.
And, yes, it works!  Tested by Scope’s zealous iPhone holders, not only did the versatile app list all media reports of current outbreaks and news of swine flu in Ireland, it also broke it down by county.
And if you spy an outbreak be the first to report it using the app’s unique outbreak reporting feature.  You will get credit as a disease detective and your find will be featured on HealthMap’s website (
"As people are equipped with more knowledge and awareness of infectious disease, the hope is that they will become more involved and proactive about public health," says HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein, PhD, assistant professor in the Children's Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP).
"This is grassroots, participatory epidemiology," chimes Clark Freifeld, HealthMap co-founder and a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab and research software developer at CHIP.
Outbreaks Near Me is available at no cost for download in the iTunes App Store. For more information on Outbreaks Near Me, visit:
Remember when swine flu first struck? Governments responded with helplines, distribution points for anti-viral drugs and a promise of a vaccine by Christmas. But now health chiefs in the UK have unveiled a bizarre new tactic to combat the virus – a role-play game, using a set of dice.
The Flu Pandemic Game, which can be downloaded from the UK Department of Health’s website, is for three to 60 players, takes around 90 minutes and has chance cards much like Monopoly.
Initially devised by Camden Primary Care Trust in North London, the game 
is supposed to simulate ‘the effects of a flu pandemic on staffing in an imaginary group of small businesses’, and a version has also been developed for use in GP surgeries and hospitals.
The game has 15 rounds, each representing one working week. At the start of each round, players roll a set of four dice; with the number they roll indicating whether they will go down with swine flu. In the first round, it takes a roll of four sixes to be condemned to the virus. But as the rounds go on, the probability of each worker catching swine flu increases as the imaginary pandemic takes hold. By round six a player need only roll two sixes to come down with the virus.
And here’s the educational part: The surviving players are asked at the end of each round to discuss the impact that the pandemic has had on the various businesses involved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game also comes with a Government health warning:
‘Some people may find it disturbing to play using details of their own organisation.
‘The game is a simulation and has no effect on subsequent events, but it can seem a little like fortune telling.’
Unlike in real life, however, the game does not actually allow players to die because, as officials claim, it would make it too ‘unwieldy’.
Critics have complained that it is a waste of time and that the resources should have been directed to the Government’s swine flu helpline. A Department of Health spokeswoman refused to be drawn on how much the game has cost the taxpayer.
Elsewhere in Europe, experts in the Netherlands have also revealed an unusual weapon in the fight against swine flu - a computer game designed by experts at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.
The clock is ticking, people are dying and a flu virus is sweeping the globe – that is the scenario of this new computer game, "The Great Flu", designed to make people think about how to respond to the swine flu pandemic. As the head of the fictitious "World Pandemic Control," players pick a flu strain, and then monitor that strain's spread around the world.
"The game is based on the need to increase public awareness to the threat posed by a pandemic and the measures in place to contain it," explains Dr Albert Osterhaus, one of the world’s leading virologists, based at the Erasmus Medical Centre, and one of the experts involved in creating the game.
"In no way is it intended to be a substitute for any advice given by the medical authorities," he quickly adds. "Its purpose is simply to create another avenue of information."
The game is played online and gives players the unenviable task of containing, as much as they can, the spread of an unknown flu virus. The more time passes, the more people become infected; more people die and more nations are hit.
The player has various tools to try and halt the pandemic. For instance, early warning systems can be established and citizens warned about the risks. Also available are facemasks and anti-viral drugs, as well as improved research centres and medical services.
The player is also given the option to close schools and airports, suspend businesses and quarantine infected members of the population.
Players face tough choices because starting funds are limited to stg£2 billion. Sweeping actions such as closing airports, beefing up research and isolating sick individuals does not come cheap. Strategy is key.
An introductory video for the game reminds players of the dreadful impact of past pandemics, such as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which is estimated to have left 40 million dead. The game can only be played online at and it is free.
So are these online games all in bad taste, or do they fulfil a cathartic role? Are their creators conscious of the potential for offence, given that there have been deaths as a result of the swine flu outbreak?
Unlike many of the games out there, the very popular Swinefighter, is not about spreading the virus. It features a doctor wearing a surgical mask inoculating flying pigs with an oversized syringe, turning them from a sickly green to a healthy pink. The nimble medic can even step up the pace of the game by trading in his mammoth syringe for a retrofitted AK47! (
Sneeze - originally commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and Channel 4 as part of Routes, a series on genetics - illustrates how viruses spread. The game awards points for infecting as many people as possible with a single sneeze. (
Players of Pandemic 2, a darker take on viral epidemics, aim to engineer a virus that wipes out humanity. A number of gaming fans described Pandemic 2 as “gruesome but gratifying”. Though some question whether games are an appropriate medium for examining topics such as disease, others argue that playing out worst-case scenarios is one way we make sense of things. (
A more educational game, Killer Flu, has had an upswing in interest since the swine flu story broke. Commissioned by the UK Clinical Virology Network, it casts the player as a virus attempting to infect as many people as possible. The website claims: “Here is a game that allows you to learn more about how the influenza virus is transmitted and how it changes every year - which explains why you can get more than one dose of the flu over your lifetime and why vaccines need changing every year.”
Mr Ian Bogost, the co-founder of Persuasive Games, which designed Killer Flu, remarked: "Games have a unique power that other media don't. They allow you to understand how systems work. Epidemiology may actually be better explained in game form than by a pamphlet or documentary."
So far, the games inspired by swine flu are neither particularly shocking nor satirical. But if the current swine flu pandemic escalates over the coming months, as is expected, and schools are closed, there are going to be a lot of children and teenagers sitting at home with little by way of entertainment. With luck these swine flu battling online games could breed a new generation of health and Government officials who understand and know exactly how to combat such virulent diseases.
And pigs might fly.
Some other infectious activity:
Swine Flu: Hamdemic
End the threat of pandemic by throwing pigs out of Mexico with a slingshot. You’d feel sorry for the pig though, as they are hacked by axe-wielding, yellow bio suited maniacs, catapulted onto cacti or roasted on a spit.
Swine flu: Pandemic Panic
Save the infected Mexicans by dropping them into quarantine before it’s too late!
Aporkalypse Now!
It's Armagammon! Grab your trusty weapon (shotgun or frying pan) and make bacon with the red-eyed zombie pigs!

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