What Gaming Has Taught Us About the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Dr. Caro Williams-Pierce warns against the recent instances of comparing COVID-19 to pandemic video games.

Photo of person playing a video game on a monitor

Researchers and media have begun to look at a perhaps surprising source to better understand human behavior during a worldwide pandemic – online gaming. Dr. Caro Williams-Pierce, an expert in game design for learning, warns of three areas that should be taken into consideration before making real-world comparisons to video games: quality of information differences, unlimited and unequal choice sets, and differences in the experience of self-isolation.

Among the multiplayer online games that have been cited as insightful to today’s COVID-19 pandemic are economist Frederick Chen’s 45-day online game that simulated the outbreak of diseases (2013) and World of Warcraft (WoW) where developers accidentally released a virtual plague (2005). Both suggested that people will do things that aren’t in their best long-term interest for more immediate reward.

Dr. Williams-Pierce, assistant professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies (UMD iSchool), cautions using these games as predictors of real human behavior without taking into consideration a few fundamental differences of virtual environments: 

  1. Information timeliness and trustworthiness

    The timeliness and trustworthiness of information can be foggy in the real-world compared to video games. In the WoWpandemic, players had a symbol that showed themselves and other players if they were infected, so players didn't have to rely upon multiple information sources to understand what was happening or a lack of certainty about who might be infected. With COVID-19, there are two major information flow problems: 1) people suspect they might be infected with COVID-19, but don’t qualify for a test to know for certain; and 2) people don't know which news or political figures to trust. Both make it very difficult in the real-world for people to make decisions and likely causes very different behavioral outcomes than in games.

  2. Choice sets and unconscious influencers

    Well designed online games evolve and are shaped by the players themselves and their interactions, coined “emergent experiences” by UC-Irvine’s Dr. Kurt Squire. Every time a choice is given, both in games and real-life, such as choosing to go outside or to stay inside, we go a certain direction and avoid another. And our choices directly influence the emergent experiences of others - if you choose to go grocery shopping without wearing a mask, you are putting others at risk, and influencing their emergent experience and future choices. The potential of limitless outcomes and experiences makes it hard to use video games as predictors of real behavior. In addition, choice sets aren’t always realistic in games, such as unlimited stockpiling in WoW.

  3. Nature of self-isolation

    The WoW pandemic and Chen's game represented self-isolation in different ways, and by necessity, these representations were mere proxies for actual self-isolation. Players were still logging in and playing the game. In isolation in the real-world due to COVID-19, we feel the impact when our physical and emotional needs aren’t met – food, water, air, safety, love, support. There are also non-COVID-19 health care needs that have been postponed, from dental work to joint replacements, that impact quality of life. And, in this world, there is bone-deep fear - unlike in a game where if someone is infected, they can simply change their mind and decide not to play anymore.

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