Computer game teaches students about SARS, AIDS

May 12, 2005, vol. 33, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl



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A new computer game is taking aim at infectious diseases by teaching young students how to stay safe, just like the characters they create.

Contagion was developed by SFU education professor Suzanne de Castell and York University's Jennifer Jenson in response to the proliferation of such diseases as SARS, West Nile virus and HIV/AIDS.

“Self care is critical to controlling pandemics and that becomes an education issue,” says de Castell, who plans to test the game in a number of Toronto schools in May. Contagion was created to teach self-care management skills to students between nine and 13 years of age, by combining information and problem-solving with the kind of sophisticated entertainment values found in commercially designed games.

Contagion players are asked to design characters, male or female, such as community health workers or virus hunters, giving them attributes and weapon options, such as masks, gloves, antibacterials, hazard suits, and blood sample kits. Their assignment is to track the source of a disease and its contagious path, using a series of diagnostic tools, without infecting themselves or others. An infected character grows weak and eventually won't move.


Just like other games, players move through different levels and face evil opponents. “There is a scoring system in place as players have only so much time to escape a search light and treat people who show symptoms of disease,” explains de Castell.

The game's introduction makes it clear that learning how to respond to contagious diseases is paramount: “In a plague-ravaged land, ignorance reigns supreme.”

Students can also access more information by checking out books from the site's health centre office. When they click on books on the office shelf, they access relevant websites on a range of diseases from the Centre for Disease Control and Canada Health.

De Castell, who also studies gender and technology, has found that girls especially like to design characters that “do something good or useful, something that benefits others or has redeeming social value.”

The project is part of a $3 million Canada wide study of video gaming entitled Simulations and Advanced Gaming Environments, headed by SFU's David Kaufman.

Contagion is scheduled to be completed in a year and, after extensive testing, will be freely available online.

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