Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (image: NIAID/Flickr)

In 2015, Bill Gates said, “If anything kills over ten million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus.” Though his words were prescient — COVID-19 has now killed seven million people and rising — Gates wasn’t a psychic. He was guided by a series of simulation exercises he’d helped fund, gathering pandemic response specialists to play out how a pandemic might go.

But if SFI Science Board member and External Professor Lauren Ancel Meyers (UT Austin) is right, simulation games can teach us far more. She and her colleagues organized a workshop at SFI May 17–18 to reimagine how pandemic simulation games can help us prepare for the superbugs to come, bringing together epidemiologists; military war game specialists; officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and experts in human behavior, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence (AI). “In the military, simulation games have proven powerful tools for learning about and advancing human decision-making,” Meyers says. “To equip the globe for future pathogen threats, we need to bring the state of the art into public health preparedness.”  

Pandemic simulation games can accomplish a variety of goals, from advancing our understanding of human behavior to designing robust strategies to combat future threats to training the decision-makers of tomorrow.

For example, designers might create a game to help build an AI-enabled decision support system, collecting data on how players perceive information and make decisions to train the AI. Games can also help to hone surveillance systems or public communication strategies by collecting data on how people make decisions based on different types of information.

Alternately, a game can be used to train decision-makers, giving them experiences in a safe, controlled environment so that they can better assess risks, cope with uncertainty, and predict outcomes of decisions. At the workshop, Meyers demonstrated just such a game that she and her team are building for the city of Austin. The game will help city managers improve their command and coordination plans, testing decisions such as: When should they set up an emergency operations center when a new pathogen emerges? Who should be part of it? What authority and resources should it have? 

“By building games that force players to confront unprecedented pathogen threats and the cascading interdependencies between our health, social, political, and environmental systems,” Meyers says, “we can help to overcome the failures of imagination that left us unprepared for COVID.”

Read more about the workshop, "Simulation Games for Global Pandemic Resilience," May 17–18, 2023