Malaria Video Game Plays Like ‘Advance Wars,’ ‘StarCraft’

At Microsoft’s Expo Night at the 2008 Games for Change festival last week, there were games about global warming, poverty and drunk driving.

Then there was the game about malaria.

More specifically, “Specter” is a game that aims to spread awareness about malaria and show how persistent the disease really is. It was created by four Parsons design and technology students as part of PETlab, a joint project of Games for Change and the New York City university that has its participants develop prototype games and play experiences addressing social issues.

Comprised of Mike Edwards, Chris Hennelly, Eric Nunez and Subalekha Udayasankar, the team made the game under the constraints of a 24-hour game design competition held at the school in late April. The theme of the contest, which they only learned once it began, was to make a game about a disease.

Thus, “Specter” was born. Inspired by titles such as “Advance Wars,” “Warcraft” and “StarCraft,” the game is a player-versus-player strategy game that has two opposing factions: malaria (represented by plasmodium and mosquitos) and health workers. The game takes place in a village filled with huts, and the point is for each faction to try to take control of the area with its different units. If you’re on the health care side, you can place nets to keep mosquitos out, spray pesticides and use funds to train and employ more doctors in the village.

As for the malaria side, the plasmodium would look out for still water and open areas without the proper preventative measures. The important aspect for the team was to highlight the real issues that people face.

“The doctor only has a certain amount of resources,” said Edwards, one of the game’s programmers. “She can get assistance, but you have a limited amount of money for that, and the more villages you lose, the more money you lose to get more help, which is an economic problem typical in developing countries.”

The idea of the game is to try to teach people not just the dynamics of how health care workers have to go into the field and apply these tactics, but also get a sense of how malaria starts in the first place. “As a player, you have to develop strategies that require you to think like malaria,” he continued, “so you get a better sense of how the disease works and how you have to fight it. And it’s supposed to be very hard.”

I asked Edwards if he thought people could really learn about social issues from games like “Specter.” “It’s a different level of experience,” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot more that you can put inside a book or an article in terms of the details but there’s a lot you can’t understand about the progress of the disease or what it takes to actually fight it without either A) being there or B) coming into some really interesting simulation of how that might work. If a game is good then people will play it no matter what; we don’t want to feed someone their medicine but to make them want to play our game.”

Hennelly, Edwards’ teammate who worked on the design, added: “We’re trying to coming up with ideas for how a game could be played and how it could teach things. That’s pretty much as far as we want to go; we’re not trying to make ’Halo.'”

In fact, as recent graduates of the M.F.A. program, Edwards and Hennelly plan to only make social-change games. “We don’t have anything against [’Halo’], but there are plenty of people making games like ’Halo,'” Hennelly said. “So we kind of feel like there’s a social responsibility for us to try to tackle these situations and to give people a chance to learn about situations that aren’t being made [into games].”

Edwards agreed and said that he was excited to create games about topics that have never been addressed before. “There’s a lot of interesting problems out there that no one’s really solved or even tackled, so I think that kind of newness to it is really very attractive. Whereas you could go into the industry and make yet another first-person shooter — it’s kind of a snooze.”

The team has spent about 30 hours on the game so far, and it was developed in a free language called Processing. If “Specter” gets greenlit for production, the team plans to use XNA to get it coded for Xbox Live.