Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 15, 2009

This weekend: Save the world from X flu

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Philip J. Palin on August 15, 2009


The Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, in cooperation with Ranj Serious Games, has produced an online game focused on preventing, mitigating, and responding to pandemic.

It’s a great idea reasonably well executed.  If you are on broadband you can access the game at http://www.thegreatflu.com/.  Don’t try unless your connection is solid and speedy.

According to the game-makers website, the goal of the game is “to increase the awareness and the level of knowledge about viruses and the complex way viruses spread and evolve.” 

The Great Flu is fundamentally a strategy game where you deploy assets in anticipation of or in response to emerging events. You decide what and where you should invest and you only have so much budget, so every choice begins to limit future choices.

If you make bad choices the number of infected and dead increase more rapidly.  If you make good choices body-count slows and the spread across the planet can even be stopped.

Here are some of your action options and their cost.  You have a budget of 2 billion Euros at the start of the game.

  • Distribute face masks: 7 million Euros
  • Improve health care: 20 million Euros
  • Close schools: 10 million Euros
  • Close markets: 5 million Euros
  • Close airports: 250 million Euros
  • Isoloate symptomatic individuals: 80 million Euros
  • Establish early warning system: 100 million Euros
  • Inform civilian:s 5 million Euros
  • Improve research facilities: 200 million Euros
  • Stockpile vaccine type A: 120 million Euros
  • Stockpile vaccine type B: 120 million Euros
  • Stockpile antiviral medicine: 100 million Euros

The game is slow to load and is mostly a visually enhanced interactive spreadsheet.  By adjusting variables in one cell you impact other cells.  Anyone who has played around with “dynamic” budgeting knows the basic drill.

The key to winning, if it can be called that,  is timing.  Early investments in research, surveillance, and basic health care will pay big benefits.  The timing of where and when to stockpile vaccines and antivirals can get complicated and expensive.  In this game, you are more likely to lose than win.  And most “wins” still involve lots of disease and death.  So does Grand Theft Auto.  In managing a pandemic, so does the real world.

On Thursday Treale Fristoe, a thoughtful critic of gaming, complained that, “It takes quite a while before the virus even appears, during which time the player can do nothing but wait (or quit, which I expect many players would do).”  This is not precisely true.  Because I know something about pandemic mitigation, I started deploying assets before there were any disease reports.  But there is no way most players will realize this.  Otherwise I agree with Fristoe’s balanced critique of what is good and bad in the game.

Fristoe  hightlights the need for a tutorial.  Even more helpful would be a user-friendly backgrounder.  Most gamers don’t mind losing.  In fact many find losing motivational.  But then they want some clues to doing better.  That would be a great moment to have easily available a user-friendly primer on pandemic preparedness… including washing your hands.

I bet the budget for The Great Flu was under $200,000 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was designed and delivered in less than nine months (six months?).   The return on investment will be high.  It would have been even higher with a bit more investment.  Just as in fighting a pandemic.


For the last ten years, until my semi-retirement last June, I was CEO of a small company that developed, among other things,  “serious games” for corporate, defense, and homeland security clients.  So I am biased, but this approach to public information and public education has enormous potential when it is done right.

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Pingback by Ayurvedic Medicines » This weekend: Save the world from X flu

August 15, 2009 @ 8:52 am

[…] See the article here: This weekend: Save the world from X flu […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 15, 2009 @ 9:40 am

Hey Phil! Decision Support Sytems (DSS) come in many guises. Hope many decision makers decide to play.

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