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Ender’s game: how to game our way to vaccine understanding

How digital solutions – including games and animation – can play a critical role in disseminating accurate and effective information about the crucial COVID vaccine

The global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is gearing up to be the largest, fastest and most difficult vaccination programme in history.

No issue in our time has ever been as politicised as the COVID-19 crisis, and many experts anticipated that vaccine hesitancy would be the most significant challenge for the vaccine rollout. Social media and the dark corners of the internet abound with conspiracy theories about the motivations behind, and the alleged potential risks, of mass vaccination. Though there are still people who are convinced the vaccine contains an invasive tracking microchip, recent data suggests that public opinion is changing, with 44% of respondents from 15 countries saying they would get the vaccine immediately if it was available to them.

But growing public demand for the vaccine, combined with limited supply, will create its own challenges: convincing large segments of the public that it’s reasonable to patiently wait their turn. For now, it seems that most people are happy to let essential workers and vulnerable populations be the first in the queue, but that patience won’t last forever – not to mention that most people are looking at vaccine programmes from a local perspective. Developing countries lack vaccine access, and if doses are diverted to fill that gap, citizens may well begin viewing the situation as a protection being denied to local communities and families.

So how can we get the people of the world – with their varying opinions, languages and cultural contexts – on board with understanding vaccine production, efficacy, the principles of achieving population-level vaccination and the manner in which it’s being rolled out?

Education through animation

Animation may sound like something only kids watch, but it can play a critical role in removing the personalities and the politics out of the bigger picture. Why? Because it encourages the suspension of disbelief, allowing audiences to instead connect with the underlying stories and characters at a fundamental level. We know from psychology that behaviour change occurs because of our relationship to archetypes (you know the ones – the hero, everyman, jester, innocent etc). And when the audience can relate (or not) to animated characters, we move beyond trying to convince people to do something different or new simply because the facts say they should. We know right from wrong when we see it in a visual context, and it’s the application of these fundamental principles rather than pure information, that drives true learning. In a COVID-19 context, this might look like developing an animated story with aliens in a life or death struggle, for example. As soon as we begin relating to the challenges inherent in their fight to protect one another, we can start to apply those principles to our lived reality.

“Animation may sound like something only kids watch, but it can play a critical role in removing the personalities and the politics out of the bigger picture”

We have seen examples of this already at play with countries like Taiwan at the forefront of using digital technology, social media and animations coupled with humour to combat rumours and misinformation. Taiwan has had only nine deaths so far, has been able to avoid a lockdown for its 24 million inhabitants, and life is largely back to normal with the economy doing well.

So if animation lays the foundation to better understand that COVID-19 is a problem, that vaccines are the solution, that social distancing and mask-wearing have preventative benefits, how do we really drill home that message and test that understanding? How do we address the misinformation and fake news that abounds? Through games, or Serious Games to be more precise. These are games that are designed to educate rather than just entertain, with the idea being that people learn better when they are actively engaged with content. Gaming provides that immersive engagement.

Game-based learning

Games can be defined in many ways; put simply, a set of rules, a goal, feedback and, critically, that they are played voluntarily. Gaming allows the audience to become the character. By giving people agency and a safe space to learn, messages are subtly imparted, and resonate deeply.

A game can be developed to demonstrate and visualise the impact of the spread of COVID-19 and the power of vaccines. Once game developers understand the requisite learning outcomes, we can design a game that challenges players to keep their neighbours safe from the virus. Players can try and fail in a safe space, receiving feedback on whether they’ve made the right choices. After trying and failing and trying again, players will come to understand the underlying facts about why vaccines are the best long-term solution. And they will have a deeper understanding of the fundamentals around varying efficacy rates, why certain groups need to be prioritised, and why solving the problem in one country in isolation isn’t the answer.

“A game can be developed to demonstrate and visualise the impact of the spread of COVID-19 and the power of vaccines”

Digital solutions, including animation and games, can play a critical role in cutting through the noise to disseminate accurate and effective information about this crucial vaccine – not only because these two mediums have the power to convey complex ideas in a visual and accessible manner, but because they can do so in a way that cuts across culture and literacy levels, and scales cost-effectively.

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