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An Overview of The Source (Week 2): Philip Ehrenberg


To conclude the second week of The Source, Game Changer Chicago Design Lab fellow Philip Ehrenberg reflects on the activities and learning goals of the second phase of this alternate reality game.

Week 2 saw The Source turn its attention to the S in STEAM: science. Given Game Changer Chicago’s overall exploration of health issues amongst youth, design naturally moved to focus in on STIs and healthcare. Within the narrative, these challenges were concocted by a father who wanted to make sure his daughter was prepared to think creatively and critically about reproductive health. On a design level, our goals were threefold: to show a variety of perspectives by which to approach healthcare issues, especially on a local, community level; to introduce players to the sort of logic and critical thinking inherent to the sciences; and as always, to present fun and engaging games with real-world applications.

Tuesday’s flagship game, Plagues, Trains, and Automobiles, pushes players to quickly develop skills in deductive logic to track infections rampaging through their teams. Players sit in a circle while a game master develops an infection that spreads based on simple parameters: an origin point, direction of spread, and infectivity. (An example infection: Player A is the origin, and he and the player to his left are infected each turn.) Each turn players are invited to switch seats, the infection spreads, and then players must act as epidemiologists and consider possibilities for how the unknown disease is spreading and where it started. Teams intuitively developed a number of strategies, choosing to heal or move infected players around, selectively, to test their hypotheses and defeat the disease.

Without fail, this game is always pushed to its limits when the youth get to be game masters, the moderators who officiate the rules of the game. During development, one of the lab’s youth fellows thoroughly tested the designers’ logic skills when his spread pattern appeared one way due to the exact number of players we had, but actually followed a completely different rule; we only figured it out when one unfortunate designer received too many infections and died. Similarly when the mentors handed over the reins to their players, creative infections proliferated. Even better, teams had acquired the necessary skills to face these trickier patterns head-on.

The pace changed on Wednesday morning when we brought in a number of healthcare professionals to lead sessions on citywide epidemiology, healthcare public policy, sexual rights, and physician treatment of STIs. These presentations laid out the basics of the character “classes” for our live-action roleplaying game, Caduceus Quest, wherein players were given a profession and tasked with addressing “ripped from the headlines” public health problems. The exercise was one in improv and creativity, with players having to recruit teams of different professions to develop comprehensive pitches given to skeptical, grant-giving mentors. It became abundantly clear to players how different occupations can approach the same problem with radically different perspectives, and how crowdsourcing across professions can drastically improve an idea. 

All of this was mere preparation for the “boss battle” of the week: Infection City. Set on our trusty map of Hexacago (which we repurpose each week for a different board game), players are tasked with eliminating two rampaging diseases that spread according to very specific patterns. Players need to strategize and plan ahead, analyzing where the diseases are going to spread and fortify their defenses accordingly. Much like real life, optimal strategies usually revolve around a combination of prevention and treatment in order to make the most of limited time and resources. When asked about the game, a number of players were able to relate their strategies to the healthcare professionals from Caduceus Quest – for example, the game quickly gets out of hand when players only treat and don’t prevent infections, highlighting important lessons from our guest community epidemiologist and public health advocates. These connections truly gave the week an iterative and fulfilling arc.

Rather than relying on a collection of facts to teach our players, we focused on developing the types of mindsets that will be evermore important for the sciences through games. With crash courses in logic, strategic planning, interdisciplinary communication, and knowing which questions to ask and when, players now have a more holistic view of healthcare science than if they had only received the latest data (which they also got their eyes on). Moreover, this multifaceted approach to healthcare showed players how important the intersection of critical thinking and creativity can be for science as a whole. It is our belief that these games are not only powerful teaching tools, but engaging as well.