“Solve the Outbreak,” a free app developed for the general public by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, immerses game players in the world of Disease Detectives, the CDC’s equivalent of a SWAT team. These members of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) are the on-the-ground investigators of epidemics both here and abroad, working to curb the spread of diseases, from Ebola to salmonella. The app draws gamers into the humanitarian cause of saving lives, while at the same time educating users with medical knowledge and scientific problem solving.
The game offers novice detectives a variety of missions based on real-life epidemics, each of which take 10 to 15 minutes to solve. I began my own career as a Disease Detective by selecting an outbreak of an unknown respiratory disease in the Midwest. The first answer I gave was dead wrong. I got a loud buzzer.
Players are provided a series of clues that give information about the spread of the disease they are working on. They may also receive details about infected patients, notes on the outbreak, data from quantitative analysis of infected and uninfected individuals, and definitions of related diseases and treatments. Players must then make a series of medical decisions, framed as multiple choice questions, to help these virtual people and their communities, and prevent the illness from spreading.
This requires learning about the disease. To solve an outbreak of E. coli infection, for example, the player must learn the symptoms of the infection and its treatment. (The app also offers practical health tips).
The first case I tried to solve involved a 37-year-old pianist named Zeke who had fallen ill with an unknown respiratory illness. The photograph that illustrated Zeke's case–every case is illustrated with a picture–instantly drew me in. A stunning grand piano stood alone on a stage in front of an empty auditorium, as if to say, "Zeke is gone and the music has stopped–we desperately need your help!" Combining the human narrative with scientific analysis made for a powerful and educational game.
Each outbreak involves analyzing several graphs and charts to make effective medical decisions. It's not easy. If a player is not sufficiently skeptical, or skips information, he or she is likely to answer questions incorrectly. Taking the time to understand the data and make informed decisions brings rewards for correct answers and a delightful "ping!"–not to mention, in some cases, the satisfaction of saving a virtual village.
In my mission, I was eventually able to discover that Zeke's instrument had spread anthrax to himself and to students at his music workshop. When I solved this outbreak and prescribed treatment for Zeke and his students, I received points, awards, and an upgrade in status, all of which earned me cheers and clapping from a virtual audience.
"Solve The Outbreak" manages to accomplish something that from my experience is nearly impossible: it is both fun and educational. After solving two outbreaks and being promoted from novice to apprentice, I was captivated. I selected the "about" section to learn more about both the CDC and the real Disease Detectives, and began seriously contemplating going into the field myself. If you play, watch out: you might end up sending in an application to the Epidemic Intelligence Service yourself.
Amy Blum is a Master's student in Molecular Biology & Biochemistry at Wesleyan University and an aspiring science writer.