Games with Purpose; on making a game to teach us about antibiotic resistance

8 mins read

Review by Matt S.

Superbugs is a game that looks so very simple. You’re presented with a petri dish, and then tasked with killing multiplying bacteria as a clock ticks down. Keep them at bay long enough and a new antibiotic will be developed, killing them all, and then the clock starts ticking down again as a new bacteria, immune to the previous antibiotic, starts to multiply.

Let the dish fill up, and it’s game over. Eventually the dish will fill up, and that’s the point. This might seem like a simple arcade game or score attack button masher, but Superbugs has far more meaningful purpose.

Antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, is a very real threat facing us, right now. There are infections and diseases that are now highly resistant to treatment, to the point of being untreatable.

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It’s not a subject that people are as familiar with as we perhaps need to be, however, which is why games like Superbugs are so valuable. Developed by Preloaded and Nesta as part of the Longitude Prize – a £10 million prize fund to help solve the problem of global antibiotic resistance, the game is designed to help raise awareness of the problem, which is critical in unifying people behind finding a solution to it.

“Preloaded is focused on the creation of games which go beyond pure entertainment – we call them Games with Purpose. Our games touch a diverse range of topics from eco-systems to neuroscience, politics to philosophy and even death,” Phil Stuart, the creative director of Preloaded, said.

“Games with Purpose are well suited to tackling such a range of serious and hard to grasp subjects. Another great aspect of using games to solve challenging topics is the ability to model complex rules and systems, making them well suited to topics such as science, where accuracy is key. Games are also a powerful medium for transporting you into a situation or assuming a certain role. Principally games’ intrinsic engagement qualities make tackling any issue easier and more compelling that other mediums.”

“Serious games set out to deliver an ‘objective’ beyond entertainment. Whilst the same game development processes apply to creating compelling games, the major difference lies in how the serious bit is tackled in the game,” Stuart said.

“This challenge sits primarily with the game designers, in term of how will the learning outcomes or behavioural change be delivered in the game. It’s a specialist area, and the game designers are often supported by instructional designers, physiologists and content experts based on the specific project’s requirements. It is this approach that makes Games with Purpose highly effective at creating an engaging experience whist generating results.”

Superbugs is, of course, not the first game that tackles the topic of disease – or the impact that it might have if humans can’t push past social or political differences to work together on a solution.

Just recently Plague Inc. landed on the PlayStation 4, and it’s a game that carries with it a very chilling message on the same topic; humanity’s slowness to respond to global health risks may mean that we my be a point in the future that we can’t catch up to a contagion that, uh, goes viral. Superbugs is a more intensely focused experience, being less about the social impacts of the disease, and being about the disease itself.

“The game was designed to show (while being fun) how resistance is generated by our use of antibiotics and how long it may be before we run out,” Tamar Ghosh, Longitude Prize lead at Nesta, said. “When we do, the smallest cut may kill us. The game challenges the player to see how long they can keep the superbugs at bay, underlining this point.”

But are games really the right platform to be exploring these ideas, given that there continues to be resistance to the idea that games can be focused on serious topics within some quarters of the industry?

“That is changing, and fast. There are so many organisations such as Nesta using games shows a forward thinking approach to outreach. With one in three of the UK population playing games on a regular basis, it’s a key media to use to talk to people,” Tomas Rawlings, head of Auroch, who has also been involved in the Superbugs project, said.

“As for whether games are the right platform for a given project, Games are no different from any other media form; it’s about context, nuance and respect for your source material.”

That near ubiquity to game playing – just consider the mammoth success that Pokemon Go is enjoying at the moment, means that games can be a natural tool to fit into the broader education system. People – especially children – now have an intuitive understanding of how games worked, and titles such as Superbugs, could potentially be part of the learning curriculum. Indeed, educators are already trialling the use of Games with Purpose in their environments.

“I think schools will – as they always do – use the resources which best serve the subject being covered. Sometimes this will be through games, sometimes it won’t. I think a game like this can really help to bring to life an issue which is in many ways invisible and the impact of which will probably be felt most keenly several decades from now,” Ghosh said.

It’s a position that Preloaded has throw the dice with as well. “We firmly believe that games can be one of the most effective ways to learn in the classroom and beyond. We partnered recently with Amplify in the US to create a suite of games to propose new ways of learning about literature and science. These games are currently being piloted in the US and India,” Jessica Taylor, managing director of Preloaded, said.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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