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]

Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.


CCR 634: Cicero, part 1

While reading Cicero’s De Oratore, I noticed a few tensions. First, the dispute on the “ideal orator.” Crassus and Cicero seem to value an ideal orator with a sound knowledge of all things (particularly law in Crassus’ case). For example, Cicero says the following:

“In my opinion, indeed, no man can be an orator possessed of every praiseworthy accomplishment, unless he has attained the knowledge of every thing important, and of all liberal arts, for his language must be ornate and copious from knowledge, since, unless there be beneath the surface matter and understood and felt by the speaker, oratory becomes and empty and almost puerile flow of words.”

This seems to echo some of the dialogue in Gorgias and Phaedrus, as well as some of what Isocrates says about needing to know something to speak about it effectively–if I remember correctly. Crassus’ focus on law and his elevation of it, considering the Twelve Tables the most important books the orator needs to know, emphasizes a civic component, but he, too, also values a general knowledge. And as the discussion moves forward, the content of this knowledge ranges from more philosophical wisdom, to psychological insight, to the various subject matters one may speak on, like military strategy.

But Crassus still seems to emphasize psychological insight and customs or laws, as when he says, “For the proper concern of an orator. . . is language of power and elegance accommodated to the feelings and understandings of mankind” (20). Or, more definitively, when Crassus breaks up philosophy into three parts–physics, logic, and “the “knowledge of life and manners”–he assigns the third discipline to orators. This theoretical knowledge, deep as well as wide, seems as essential for Crassus as the knowledge of rhetoric that he discusses, such as the Five Canons and the anatomy of a typical speech.

Antonius tends to take a more practical approach, emphasizing early on that he’s not drawing from books but from his own experience in the courts. He seems to value eloquence in itself, though in Book II he also emphasizes that one should study and learn the content of a particular case or disputation. Antonius argues the Crassus’ ideal may be too difficult for most orators, turning them away or getting them stuck studying philosophy outside the forums and courts of more relevant experience. He also values exposure to various things–“that the orator should be a knowing man”–but again, this doesn’t require the rich knowledge that Crassus desires (66).

Instead, Antonius defines the orator in one of my favorite definitions as “one who can use words agreeable to hear, and thoughts adapted to prove, not only in causes that are pleaded in the forum, but in causes more generally” (64). I love the subtle richness of this definition. “Agreeable to hear” points to the role of style and eloquence, which Antonius views as essential to oration. This ability to produce agreeable language sets the orator apart from other experts. And the “thoughts adapted to prove” connects well to the sort of invention practice that Antonius discusses later on. As he notes, he always tries to clarify–in a stasis-like manner–what the issue is, the nature of it, the area of doubt, and how he can best make his proof. This also includes how he wants to emotionally predispose his audience, describing how he leads them through emotional arcs, seeming to ripen them for persuasion.

Indeed, Antonius shows that just because one knows things, like Socrates, one isn’t necessarily persuasive. He points out that the “dry” and “concise” language of the logician differs from the orator who must speak “to the ear of the multitude” (127). And, as he puts it:

“in oratory, whether it be an art or an attainment from practice only, he who has acquired such ability that he can, at his pleasure, influence the understandings of those who listen to him with some power of deciding, on questions concerning public matters, or his own private affairs, or concerning those for or against whom he speaks” (101)

This emphasis on eloquence and “practice” leads to another major tension in the piece: what the “art” of oration is. Here, Crassus makes a nice dichotomy: if dealing with general content, it is not an art; but in terms of methods about speaking, it is. Antonius seems to secure himself more on the latter with his emphasis on eloquence. But even among this, emphasis of art as method, other questions arise, like the role of knowledge as discussed above, the role of genius and natural ability (which both Crassus and Antonius value), the role of humor (a long discussion in Book II), the “labor” of training one’s voice and body (44), the role of model cases and writing (42), or the sort of training one should get more generally.

For example, Antonius  argues that his “first precept” is for students, who have ability, to find someone they want to imitate, but he also discusses that some have a natural originality and don’t sound like others (107-110).

Reading these texts, I’m always struck by their connection–despite differences–between past and present. In light of my focuses above, I find the question of content and the role of individual ability particularly relevant, as both continue to carry into the discipline today, though they are framed more through questions of assessment and not philosophy and art. The qualifying and meta-discussions of rhetoric that characterize many of these texts and scholarship in the 20th and 21st Century seems to thread, like Daedalus’ golden spool, through the often serpentine labyrinth of what Lauer called our “dappled discipline,” past to present.

CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

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CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics

The tension between more “objective” knowing and more “subjective” knowing has often followed me around. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of filter bubbles, as this post explores, but I think it also has more general connections, including to the task of comparative rhetoric from the readings.

Before diving into the readings, though, I wanted to start a bit where I generally come from: essentially, Kant and the question of metaphysics. With Kant, I’m always preoccupied with his argument that most knowledge is “synthetic” and therefore arrived at through experience, and furthermore, we experience things as phenomena through the “synthetic a priori”of our experience, not as the noumena of the “thing-in-itself.” I think this basic framework–that we never experience “Reality” except in a subjective sense–is productive beyond Kant, as one can layer up more lenses between the thing-in-itself and our experience of it. Language, culture, our prior experiences, cognitive biases, our senses, etc., color our perception, making the sort of transcendental knowledge of the Rationalists impossible. As Nietzsche put it, in Kaufmann’s translation, there is no “immaculate perception.”

And as someone who is trying to think about the world and “produce knowledge” (though the phrase knowledge production has always felt off to me), I am constantly faced with the ethics of knowledge. A certain hubris can come from a transcendent view of knowledge, as well as a potential violence. Even if one isn’t actually trying to produce a totalizing model for stuff or a transcendent theory, the deductive and inductive dance of explaining and knowing in most Western models still has a certain tendency to want to stretch beyond individual contexts.

And I think that’s where the readings come in: trying to find ways to ethically and responsibly theorize across different contexts, particularly different cultural and rhetorical ones.

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CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

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Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

One of the elements I find most interesting is the distinction between ideological critique and the algorithm, which Galloway, in particular, describes, but also seems to inform Friedman.

When describing playing Civilization, Galloway notes the “soft racism” and questionable God view that informs the game, like the problematic “attributes” given to civilizations–like how the Aztecs aren’t “industrial–or the absence and simplification of many civilizations. To Civilization‘s defense, subsequent additions have addressed some of these issues, like the inclusion of more civilizations, like Polynesia, and dropping essentialist attributes for more civilization-specific qualities.  But, things like the progress narrative, the valuing of military dominance, the potential simplification of ethnicities, and the role of commerce and territory still pose potential problems, ripe for ideological critiques.

Galloway moves from this into what he calls the “third level” of critique, “informatic critique,” which he describes as a “formal critique rooted in the core principles of informatics that serve as the foundation of the gaming format” (99). He asks, “whether it [Civilization] embodies the logic of informatic control itself” (101). Though I still had some trouble ultimately figuring out what Galloway meant by this, I think it reflects the way a phenomenon gets enacted by a computational system.

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ENG 730: Player Experience, Identification, and Identity

I feel that Roger Caillois, in some ways, offers a helpful rejoinder to some questions (or critiques) to Huizinga from last class through his focus on “games.” While Huizinga seemed more concerned with a broader concept of play, Caillois seemed to take a more more grounded approach. As Caillois says early on, “[Huizinga’s] work is not a study of games, but an inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture” (4).

In particular, I thought Caillois taxonomy of games proved helpful, particularly as it further acknowledged the hybrid mixes that could take place within the terms. As he lays them out: “I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively” (12). To this “rubric” he adds a further axis between the more open play of paidia (a tem Huizinga also takes up in tension with agôn) and the more structured ludus.

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