- Playing with Other People’s LivesA Critical Expansion for Pandemic
Video games have been receiving a lot of positive scholarly attention recently for their potential use as transformative teaching tools. For example, James Paul Gee argues that video games are pedagogically powerful because “they situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world.”1 In other words, “good games tend to offer well-defined goals and clear feedback. This gives us an objective measure of our performance, and allows us to optimize our strategies.”2 This means that they allow users to learn by interacting with an environment, observing how that environment reacts to our actions, and adjusting our strategy before trying again. Over time, the data that we gather from these interactions allow us to create a rough mental model of the systems that lay beneath the simulated world, the processes that guide its generation and its evolution.
In educational, or “serious,” games, this process can give players insight into real-world systems via a process Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric.” Bogost defines procedural rhetoric as “the practice of using processes persuasively. . . . It’s arguments are not made through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.”3 As such, “procedural rhetorics afford a new and promising way to make claims about how things work.”4 In other words, when a video game purports to model a real-world process, it engages us by inviting us to ask questions about both the accuracy of the simulation (e.g., Is it truly mimicking the [End Page 87] way that the process works? Is it possible for the process to function differently?) and the ethics of the process being simulated (e.g., Who benefits from the process as it currently stands? Are we satisfied with allowing the process to continue in this manner?). In fact, Mary Flanagan calls for activist game designers to intentionally cultivate these recursive reflections through a practice she calls “critical play,” which is “characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces.”5
I’ve written in the past about the ways that video games can be specifically useful to teachers in the environmental humanities.6 However, digital games aren’t the only way for our students to access the benefits of critical play. Board games and tabletop role-playing games also engage in procedural rhetorics via their focus on executable rules, despite their analog format.7 This article is an example of how to use gameplay and game design in the environmental humanities classroom, featuring the board game Pandemic, with my own homegrown game mod. The basic version of the game tells a story about the conflict between humanity and the environment in which a team of heroic scientists must work together to save the world from a deadly disease. The game suggests a rather simplistic view of the relationship between nature (represented by the biological threat posed by disease) and culture (represented by medical science)—that they are diametrically opposed to one another and that the purpose of culture is to bring nature under control for the benefit of all mankind. My modification, on the other hand, complicates this picture by encouraging players to think through the ways that political power structures intervene in this story. After reading about some of the real-world examples described below, students could play through both the original version of the game and the modified version and talk about how they each imagine the biopolitics of epidemics differently. Teachers might also choose to ask students to create their own arguments about topics relating to the environmental humanities in the form of board games, to play test them along with their classmates, and perhaps even to write a short reflection about how they attempted to simulate real-world processes via their games’ rules. [End Page 88]