Pandemic and Wash Your Hands: Experiencing Outbreak Differently

Different media allows different experiences. Books let your imagination work. Movies integrate dialogue, visuals, music, and editing. Audio has a unique intimacy.

Games, too, allow unique experiences.

While I could talk more about some more specifics–like how games are a highly interactive form of media–I mainly want to focus on two games that have been on my mind lately with the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent pixel art game called Wash Your Hands (2020) and the classic cooperative board game Pandemic (2008).

Both address a similar issue, outbreak, in starkly different ways, showcasing the breadth of games as media. But at the same time, I think they also have a lot in common, namely the ability to clarify abstractions in novel ways.

Pandemic: Modelling Outbreak

Pandemic (2008) is a relatively known board game designed by Matt Leacock, designer of Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, where 2-4 players work together to combat and eventually eradicate a series of diseases across the planet.

Pandemic’s hero-style cover art. Image from W. Eric Martin on BoardGameGeek.

The gameplay fundamentals are simple. On each turn, the player uses four actions to navigate the board, fight disease, and find a cure. Then, at the end of the turn, they draw two “player cards” that grant new actions but also contain “epidemic” cards that intensify the disease. After the player cards, they draw a set of “infection cards” based on the infection rate and place more disease tokens on the board to simulate the spread of the overall infection. The players must defeat the diseases by finding all four cures before the pandemic spreads too much, leading to their defeat.

Pandemic is a “simulation” game, a game that takes something from real life and models it by using rules and game components. Players then interact with that model, creating different outcomes based on their decisions. In a game about pandemics, this modelling has some thought-provoking parallels.

For one, the explosive spread of certain outbreaks bares a spooky resemblance to reality, along with the relentless growth of the diseases. As players tend one part of the map, another part may quickly get out of hand. Much like real life, the more a city or network of cities is infected, the more quickly the virus grows. Just as we are being told to stay inside to slow exposures and reduce simultaneous cases, “flattening the curve,” players need to constantly monitor and combat cases, keeping them from hitting a critical mass that overwhelms the system.

A building outbreak, represented by the cubes. Image from Dennis on BoardGameGeek

Next, the “epidemic cards,” which lead to sudden, unexpected growth, mirror the chance events that hurt real-world containment efforts. For example, South Korea’s effort to crack down on the spread early on were challenged by religious clusters and the asymptomatic carrier patient 31 and constructing models has been a challenge for epidemiologists. Pandemic builds uncertainty in its system, just as people and viruses are uncertain.

Last, the different specialists that players play as, ranging from a scientist who can more easily research a cure to the quarantine expert who reduces the spread of new cases, highlight the need for different expertise and cooperation. Players are more effective when pooling their skills and responding to new situations as a team. This fits our current situation: people are more effective working together and pooling resources and abilities–though this isn’t always how things are working out.

However, like any simulation, Pandemic is not perfect. In the card-driven spread of the virus, the disease spreads to whatever site you pull from the deck, regardless of nearby contagion. But, more importantly, the game sidesteps casualties: the human fallout of failure. This leads me to Wash Your Hands.

Wash Your Hands: Cultivating Reflection and Empathy

As Katherine Isbister argues in How Games Move Us, games, like any media, have a unique ability to affect us emotionally. Sometimes this can be quite blunt. For example, Isbister discusses Brenda Romero’s game Train, in which players must fit people, symbolized by yellow pegs, on a train, the goal being to fit as many as possible. After a period of time, the train’s destination gets revealed: Auschwitz. Romero said her goal was for players to feel “complicit,” and players often get a deep sense of guilt and regret.

As a less direct emotional experience, Isbister also cites “flow,” when one gets so engrossed in an activity that they leave self-preoccupation behind. Many games accomplish this, but the game Journey was specifically designed to accomplish this, with its yawning, moving landscape, ambient sound design, and constant movement toward a distant goal.

Wash Your Hands (2020), by Dean Moynihan’s one-man Awkward Games Studio, seems to do both: delivering an emotional punch through quiet design choices.

In Wash your Hands, you control an avatar walking in a cemetery, leaving flowers. The catch is that each grave signifies a COVID-19 death, updated as the death statistics update.

Alpha Beta Gamer’s playthrough

Unlike Pandemic, the gameplay is extremely simple, aligning it more closely to a “walking simulator” than a traditional game. It’s all the little things that add to the experience.

First the graphics, simple and understated with largely muted colors. The simplicity contrasts with the action-hero aesthetic of Pandemic, letting the number of graves, neatly organized in prim rows, speak for itself.

Next, you have the opening screens:

The opening immediately instills a hush with the tally of confirmed cases and deaths, followed by the number of roses left by players and the comforting yet haunting words: “You may feel isolated, but you are not alone. . . . Follow in the footsteps of the mourner before you.”

From this hush, the ambient noise of a forest accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar accompanies the transition to the main game: your avatar in a cemetery surrounded by trees. Then, one simply walks.

Your footsteps leave ghostly traces with a soft crunch of snow audible with each step. Here, the pacing is important, especially when accompanied by the footfall sound. It is slow and meditative.

You then start to come across roses, strewn in the snow. You pluck them up and place them in front of graves with a simple gesture.

Image from the Wash Your Hands website.

But mostly, you are walking, listening to the music, watching the grids of white space and headstone pass by, knowing that each one signifies a human life lost to the disease.

Conclusion: The Power of Clarity

Both Pandemic and Wash Your Hands center on the spread of disease, but they take up their subject matter in completely different ways. But both, in a sense, are teaching tools, or at the very least, tools of clarification.

Amid this tragic pandemic, I have been coming back to issues of clarity–of making sense of things. Because, it’s difficult. The numbers are staggering and relentless. The variables are incalculable. The timeline is shifting and daunting. Not to mention all the information, misleading or accurate.

But amid this uncertainty, I come back to the ability to communicate important truths. Some of these communications are simple and pragmatic, like the famous “flatten the curve” images, Cuomo’s PowerPoint slides, or Dr. Fauci’s clear-spoken advice and predictions. Other communications are reflective and poignant, like The New York Times‘ photo essay on “The Great Empty” and Wash Your Hands.

Amid the noise, tragedy, and acrimony, the power of clarity amid crisis proves more important, as well as the ethical, thoughtful communicators who persist, despite challenges.

I don’t think these games are as important as most of the rhetoric out there regarding this pandemic–though, I think Wash Your Hands is a potent message and experience–but I hope that they help us reflect on the important role that media, of all types, have when shaping our world.

[Title Image: “Rockingham City Shopping Centre empty shelves caused by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic” by Calistemon via Creative Commons]



Dolmage’s recognition of the hidden body in rhetoric (and philosophy) proves a powerful starting point of critique, particularly considering his point that many ancient texts were quite obsessed with the body. For example, Socrates and Plato actively attacked the lustful qualities of the body. Continuing this, Augustine marked the potent marriage between the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus with Judeo-Christian dogma, giving a particularly powerful foundation to embodiment in the Western tradition.

Here, I think Nietzsche is particularly helpful, as he is incessantly asking one to return to the body. He also critiques the potential disembodied “view from nowhere” (as Nagel calls it) that this distance from body and experience may create. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, Nietzsche critiques objectivism’s quest for “immaculate perception,” mocking science’s goal of passively lying before objects “as a mirror with a hundred facets.”

In pursuit of this immaculate perception and its rhetorical extension of immaculate communication, any unusual, distracting, or problematic body would be unwanted. So starting from the opposite end, as Dolmage does, in grounding rhetoric in the body, one must look at rhetoric in a more embodied, complex enterprise.

Continue reading “Metis”

The Specter of Disability

A horror movie is on in the other room. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but from the audio, I think it has something to do with infanticide and the remorse the parents in that horror-movie like way  of audio-induced jump scares and eerie figures at the periphery of slowly panning cameras.

In some ways, I’ve encountered eugenics in a similar way: as the ghostly hauntings of a “never again, but let’s not talk about it.” Likewise for the lobotomy craze of Walter Freeman. Or Rivera’s exposé of Willowbrook. Or the other patchy histories that lurk in the haunted confines of our American psyche.

Talking to my dad, a psychologist, about this haunting memory, he too related some difficult stories of when he was a student. Like the time when he fainted after holding down a patient for electroshock therapy, or the time when a particularly difficult patient received a lobotomy, or when a deaf patient, failing IQ evaluations, got wrongfully shuffled off to Willowbrook. Or, most hauntingly, when he recalled how one of his friends went to Germany to study psychiatric disabilities, only to realize that generations had been wiped out by Nazi genocides.

Buildings, too, evoke a similarly haunting presence. In parts of New Jersey and Long Island, the urban myth of “Cropsy” arose around the ruins of abandoned asylums. Like a Boogie Man used to scare kids into good behavior, Cropsy represented the former patients who huddle back around the desolate ruins. “Stay away from those ruins,” warned some parents, “or Cropsy might get you.”

While not necessarily remaining loyal to Derrida’s original meaning of “hauntology,” I think that that disability, for some time, and even today, retains a certain ambiguity of being. A certain haunting presence that lurks in the periphery in the ableist normality of many of our discourses, something ugly that the normative does not want to discuss or address openly.

Continue reading “The Specter of Disability”


With the recent Scotus ruling, many have celebrated a sense of “progress” throughout social media. Rainbows have popped up on skyscrapers and online interfaces. Pictures pepper Twitter feeds and Tumblrs showing same-sex couples embracing, cheering, smiling, and waving flags. Some backlash is inevitable. But for the most part, most media outlets celebrate.

Certain words, like “conservative” and “reactionary” or (on the other side) “progressive” often make me wonder about progress–in effect, what it is and whether it exist. Personally, I think that the ruling is a sign of “progress,” but that progress is more complicated than we often give it credit for.

Take this situation. If a conservative is, by definition, someone who opposes changing the status quo and prefers more “traditional” values over more “progressive” values, then we have some odd alternatives. Either he or she is always (by definition) on the losing side of history. Or progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable.

The second of these hits to the sticky heart of progress, as one may have a harder time arguing against the raw progress of time and history–that it progresses–but we can easily argue that such progress is not some rosy, life-improving series of events. WWII, The Holocaust, the potential threat of climate change, the Arab Spring’s undoing, ISIS–such things complicate ideas of progress. “A Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the feeling well:

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Continue reading “Progress”

In this together, but alone

With the protests in Baltimore taking place, I’ve been thinking a lot about race, equality, and social media. I don’t post much on the subject, as I’m not sure how I fit in to the whole debate, but prompted by some conversations and thinking from this past week, I feel compelled to sort out my thoughts in a public or semi-public place. I don’t want to point any fingers or espouse any solution. Instead, I mainly just want to clarify.

In terms of labels, and the privileges traditionally ascribed to them, I’m high on the chart: straight, white, male, able-bodied, and upper middle class. I’m not part of the 1%, but I have never had to face any real discrimination. At most, I’ve had to curb decisions and trim back dreams due to constraints on money.

That said, I have felt “other” at points, whether through mingling in counterpublics or traveling to Egypt, where I was the minority at the station, in the markets, on the streets, etc. It is an odd feeling. A certain embodied and spatial self-consciousness, a sense of uncanny distance–even rejection–from the stuff and people around you. A sense of the exiled, alien, or intrusive.

With that in mind, I can’t say my experience connects to the experience of those alienated by the public sphere at large. My experience is vastly different from theirs, and I think that’s the key: find a multiculturalism that doesn’t try to erase the meaningful differences that do exist, but that provides a place where conversation can take place. Recognizing difference, but also recognizing relationship.

For example, Cornell West points out how many Black leaders become washed down or “de-odorized,” in his words. We see this with MLK, honoring his “I have a Dream Speech” without recognizing his widespread attacks on capitalism or militarism. Or, as with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, many white Americans–and the media and textbooks I’ve encountered at large–stress the nonviolent turn they took, as if their violent actions were merely a muddy memory and not a meaningful response to the oppression they faced.

In more contemporary contexts, many white Americans might stress the “I recognize my privilege” narrative, while the victimized narratives of minorities–and the anger it expresses–becomes secondary. Some may attack the looting without reflecting on the anger, frustration, the institutional poverty that causes it, left over from hundreds of years of race relations, struggle, and oppression. On the converse, others may fixate on the violence, without looking at the nonviolence and cooperation that may take place on the sidelines. Or impose boarders that leave people alienated and uncertain. Or rely on unchallenged cultural assumptions and group dynamics, like the classic “rugged individualism” narrative.

Simply put, some narratives are more marketable or palatable than others. Some are easier to grasp, easier to hold onto, easier to repeat, easier to spread, or shout, or celebrate. Or, more bleakly, our own inborn biases–our confirmation biases, Dunbar’s numbers, and in-group proclivities–and our cultivation as individual people with limited access and viewpoints in an American milieu prevent us from seeing the whole stage. We get stuck, in a sense, caught up in simplification because the broader picture is so messy, uncertain, ugly, and inconvenient.

We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.

As I said, I don’t want to propose a solution, and though I unintentionally point my finger at certain broad perspectives, I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m flawed. Even this thinking-through or “essai” may be fraught with errors, may be dangerous, may be constraining and insensitive.

If anything, though, I think we need a certain kind of sympathy, a certain kind of identification that traditional in-group out-group dynamics and bland #AllLivesMatter multiculturalism do not meet. Once upon a time, Americans were called “The People of Feeling.” Sympathy and “fellow-feeling” was a bedrock of politics and social relations. It was a scientific fact that filled all sorts of writings. Granted, as many scholars–like Julia Stern and Andrew Burstein–note, it often excluded many black Americans and women, but I think it still has some use for us today.

I know of few other things that highlight these affective ties and social relations as clearly and viscerally as sympathy. As Diane Davis argues, in order for unifying symbols–like language or culture–to develop, one must first consider an “always prior relation to the foreign(er) without which no meaning-making or determinate (symbolic) relation would be possible.” In other words, we are always in relation. We are always “being-with.”

With this in mind, we always have an ethical obligation to recognize our inherent relationship. But at the same time, that relationship always recognizes the inherent difference or “foreign” element of the other. Through “sympathetic imagination” and “emotional contagion” we may break down boarders, but a separation always persists for most of us. “I” can never be fully “you.”

So perhaps I lied (again), and I am putting forth a position, but it is a pretty basic  one: we are all different, each with different (inaccessible) worlds and stories, but we are also in the same communities, the same country, the same world.

With this in mind, I see the role of activism. I do not see myself fitting that role personally, but I think activism and the laws and tradition that allow such activism provide key resources. They are necessary. They are beneficial. But they also have a profound ethical dimension, because activism always addresses “our” world, not “my” world or “your” world. All of our individual actions ripple through the whole.

As one of my teachers would always say, “It’s complicated.” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek progress or clarity. I think it just means we must do so with a clear sense of sympathy and “humility,” mindful of the “ground” where each of us stands and why.

The need for philosophy

I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

Continue reading “The need for philosophy”

Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from]
Continue reading “Why be better?”