Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Great Flu: Lesson Plan and Resources

Classroom Guide

The Great Flu is a fun and freely available simulation modeling a modern day influenza pandemic. Here are some suggestions for getting started using this game as a great teaching tool in the classroom.

Topics explored: pandemics, epidemiology, health policy, cost/value analysis, risk assessment, international relations, globalization, 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak

Time needed: 1 class period (40-50 minutes)

Game premise: The Great Flu is an online, free-to-play game developed in 2009 by the Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam. Players take on the role of leader of the fictional World Pandemic Control organization and try to prepare the globe to face the next great pandemic.

How to play: All the scenarios in The Great Flu begin on the eve of the outbreak of a new influenza virus.  Players are presented with a map of the world that has been divided up into roughly 20 distinct geographical regions.  When the game starts, there isn't much to see on the map, but once the outbreak begins, the map becomes increasingly punctuated with pink dots, each representing a new case of infection. Players can click and drag the map to reposition it on the game screen.
A toolbar on the left-hand side of the screen lists several kinds of health policies and preventive measures that players can choose to enact. Each action has a monetary cost, but players are given a fairly generous budget.

On the right hand side of the screen, alerts about the state of global affairs and messages about the effectiveness of player's chosen policies will appear (a sound will play when there is a new update).  Clicking on each message pauses the game and brings up a window with more details about the event.  

At the top of the screen, a running tally shows how many people are infected, the number of current deaths, and the date in the game.  This information is also displayed at the end of the game.

The Great Flu has 5 different scenarios, which seem to vary largely in the rate at which an outbreak spreads.  The easiest levels present a very low level of virulence, and thus aren't the best at demonstrating the full range of consequences of a major global pandemic. The highest difficulty levels, however, can move far too quickly for players not yet experienced with the games' interface. For use in the classroom, I would suggest playing a middle-difficulty scenario, like the Jabali or Gamer's flu scenarios.

Sample lesson plan

Find The Great Flu at You will need to have a working internet connection to play this game.

Choose a level. Ensure that students use this same scenario for each play-through.  

As a class, let the simulation play out once without making any, or making very few, interventions.  This will give teachers the opportunity to walk students through the game's controls and briefly explain all the interventions available to them, as well as set a baseline for what kind of casualties can be expected from an uncontrolled pandemic. This will take approximately 15 minutes.

Ask students to take notes about how the infection spreads.  Where does the outbreak begin? Where does the infection spread next?  How quickly?  The virus will eventually be stopped, even without player intervention.  Have students take note of how many total illnesses and deaths result when no steps are taken to stop the disease. Also have them note how long the infection lasted. Have your students write a brief account of their observations. (They could also be provided with a short worksheet for more easily recording their observations.)

Short exercise:

Now, either individually or in small teams, have you students play through the same scenario on their own.  Have them keep track of the interventions they make, of what regions they make those interventions in, and of how much money they spend on each.  They should also note any news alerts that pop up while they play.  Have them play out the simulation until the infection is controlled (this should take approximately 10-15 minutes).  How many total casualties did they have? How many in-game days did it take before the infection was controlled?  How much money did they spend? How did their outcomes compare to the classroom demonstration? 

Extended version:

After playing through the game once as described above, have students specify a goal for a second playthrough: they will reduce casualties, they will reduce their spending, or they will reduce both.  They should then map out a brief plan for how they would achieve this goal in the game. Let them play the scenario again according to their plan. Just as before, they should note their actions in the game and record observation about the flu's spread.  After they have complete the scenario, they should evaluate the effectivness of their plan. Did they meet their goal? Why or why not? Did they notice something that they didn't on the first playthrough?  If they were to play through again, could they imagine doing even better?  How?

Additional assessment questions (applicable to both short and extended lessons):

The game does not grade you on your performance in this game, so you have to grade yourself. How would you measure success in such a scenario?  What would you consider to be an acceptable number of lives lost in this kind of scenario?  Explain your reasoning. How about the amount of money spent--how much would you consider to be too much and why? Who would you expect to pay for these interventions?

In the game, you play the role of an imaginary global health officer with the power to implement broad-reaching health policies around the globe.  How realistic do you think this is?  If a global pandemic really did happen, name three challenges that you imagine someone trying to quell the pandemic would face that are not represented in the game?  How might you overcome these obstacles to stop the spread of the flu?

What did you notice about how the game models the spread of infection? How does it spread and how quickly? Which measures did you find to be most effective at slowing the spread of infection? What do you answers to these questions tell you about the assumptions the game's makers made in creating this simulation?  How would you go about researching whether or not those assumptions are warranted?

These are just some ideas to get started on thinking about how to use this great little game in a classroom.  Have you tried teaching this game before or do you have ideas about other lessons plans you could make based on this game? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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