Using a Game and Short Story to Teach about in the Plague in the Middle of a Pandemic
David Seelow, PhD©
American Horror Story: “The Masque of the Red Death”
Ironically, 4 groups of students in my Modern Culture and Games course last spring had just finished playing the superb board game Pandemic when the college, like virtually all colleges, shut down and teaching face to face classes went virtual. The game requires a cooperative effort to win. You can only stop the plague by working well together. It is a great lesson for students, but only 1 of the 4 groups succeeded. The rest died- a game death, not real, but today death can be real, and working together must expand far beyond classroom groups. Board games will not help just now, cooperation is necessary, but the lessons need to respect social distancing health requirements. Mobile games and short fiction are perfect material for online learning.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) uses fictional horror to explore the very real horror of plagues and epidemics. He sets the story during The Black Death of medieval Europe, Italy, to be specific. History always provides lessons for the present, if we listen, and great fiction resonates across nonfictional realities. In Poe’s story, the plague is ravaging the country, a “horrendous pestilence” that takes no hostages. Prince Prospero, surely, an allusion to Shakespeare’s character in The Tempest, decides the best offense is a great defense. He will wait out the plague.
The prince gathers 1,000 members of his court and they shut up in Prospero’s “castellated abbey.” Enough provisions are made available and the guests even have wonderful entertainment with dancers, musicians, comedians, and theater. A banquet fit for royalty. The scene makes me think of a big bash, Covid be damned, in the Hollywood Hills or maybe the Hamptons on Long Island or even Palm Beach in Florida. The rich can run to second homes and estates while the poor and middle class are infected, killed, buried- if fortunate, and mourned. “A thousand securely were within. Without was the Red Death.”
Prince Prospero wants to wall out the plague, but our first lesson must be that you cannot wall out illness. Walls do not keep the bad element out; they trap the self-anointed within. As in Jean Paul Sartre’s famous play “Huis Clos” there is no exit when you are walled in and the haven of seclusion and privilege inevitable becomes the hell of narcissism and death Around six months into the prince’s experiment in his self-sustaining pleasure palace, he throws a masquerade ball. Venice, of course, is famous for masquerades, and here the play on mask and masque takes effect. A mask hides one’s identity. It is a sign of secrecy; I am not who I appear to be. A masquerade is a ball- a lavish full out party- New Year’s Eve style with maskers at the masque. During Covid-19, a mask has other meanings than in Poe’s story. A mask does not hide one’s identity, but rather arms one’s fellow humans against spreading infection. It is an inversion of Poe’s masks, but in both cases, there is a relationship between masks/masques and death. A Spring Break party could serve as one instance of a contemporary inverted masquerade, nearly naked not fully clothed, beach and bar revelers celebrating. In celebrating an assumed immunity, the partiers can only spread what they try to keep away. No mask, no distance. We are, like the courtiers, special- the plague, the virus is elsewhere, not here where life goes on as life should go on. Denial- another lesson to learn, never succeeds. You cannot deny a biological reality out of existence. Even if you cannot see it you know that microscopic droplet might carry the disease. Magic does not work outside magic shows. We need to listen to science, accept unpleasant realities and work on changing them, not wishing them to disappear.
At every hour, the narrator tells us, the large ebony clock sounds loud and foreboding. The orchestra stops and everyone pauses- a still moment in the whirlwind of indulgence, “… the aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows…”. Think of the abbey as a nursing home. The enclosure acts as a breeding ground, a kind of hot house, for the virus’s spread. The pause is but for moment. The party continues. Yet another lesson, listen to alarms and warnings. When the clock strikes take stock of your situation and make smart decisions. But no, the partiers fail to listen. The masquerade is just that a masquerade, a hiding from reality and the courtiers like today’s political leaders exits in a morass of inaction. The Prince feels secure. He is immune. He, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, will manipulate realty to fit his design. However, nature does do human biding. Lesson 3: arrogance will reap disaster. The ancient Greeks knew that lesson well. A plague struck Thebes, and King Oedipus, the savior, brought ruin. He who thinks he knows too much knows too little.
Finally, the gigantic clock strikes midnight- the year turns, but not a new year in Poe, no midnight hour brings the end. It is imminent. The revelers became aware of the “presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before.” As one expects with Poe, this stranger is dressed “in the habiliments of the grave.” The language is clear, the stranger has been there all along, but no one paid attention. No one took note. He seemed invisible, but he was there, like a virus, everywhere. The invisible enemy. The revelers fall dead one by one. Death is imminent. You cannot wall death out. It is always already inside. Like Covid-19, the stranger is “untenanted by any tangible form.” Substitute Covid-19 for the “masked figure which had arrested the attention of not a single individual before,” and you have an allegory for our time. Of course, we have seen the virus before, in the form of HIV, polio, the Spanish flu, but we humans, us Americans resoundingly included, don’t often take notice in time, the ebony clock strikes and we dance on, until, “ …Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”.
As with most of Poe’s stories “The Masque of the Red Death,” has symbolism rich with meaning. He is the acknowledged master of the horror genre, and in the time of Coovid-19 we are living a horror story, the fantastic has become real. Have students from 9th grade through college re-read this story and you have a text for our times.
Playing the Enemy: Plague, Inc.
Plague, Inc. (Ndemic Creations, 2012) gives us a perfectly congruent game for Covid-19. The mobile game takes a unique angle to pandemics. You play the virus with the goal of infecting the entire globe. Critics sometimes note evil characters can be more interesting than good characters. Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost gets much more scholarly attention than the Jesus of Paradise Regained. However, playing as a virus bent on ravaging the globe during a pandemic has a very unnerving effect. We have seen how Covid-19 rapidly spread west laying waste to so many thousands in country after country. Playing the pandemic from the inside as a nefarious, fatal disease gaining power can raise a player’s awareness of just how deadly Covid-19 has been.
There is tremendous value in requiring students to play the opposite side of an issue. When I hold classroom debates, I prefer requiring students to take a position contrary to their own personal belief. It requires students to see another perspective and, consequently, builds genuine understanding. Our current congress has been unable to practice this basic principle of critical thinking and the result has been catastrophic and paralyzing.
You begin play by choosing a disease and a ground zero for the disease. My last play through I chose China for some hyperrealism, but this time a selected Algeria. As you infect people your DNA points accumulate. You use these points like you would in a combat game to strengthen your attack. The virus can be enhanced by methods of transmission- and symptom generation, i.e. making the disease more lethal. You can also frustrate attempts at a cure. As things getting rolling, humans, your enemy, after all finally wake up as they watch the body count climb. The screen will tell you the death count just like the Nightly News’ running tally of deaths from Covid-19. The games become a race between your spreading the infection and countries’ race for a cure.
The game’s colors are classic Poe. Death is black. Red signifies infection. The red death claiming more and more victims in front of your eyes. The visual effect makes the denial practiced by some political leaders almost impossible. It is hard to deny what stares you in the face. This proves a great learning moment. The more leaders try and push Covid-19 out of the headlines the more people are likely to die. On a certain level denial serves to spread what the defense mechanism is meant to deny. Students might be more apt to put on a mask after playing this game.
The game’s use of maps and graphs provide excellent tools for students to analyze, interpret data and identify trends. This improves both students’ visual literacy and information literacy. It also drives home the stark reality of infectious diseases and the necessity of a global response.
At any point, you can pull up a country map to see the health status of that country. Toward the end of pay I pulled up Australia, an island country geographically distant from other advanced countries hence not easy for transmission to reach. Moreover, the country is resource wealthy and offers advanced medical care and top notch research centers. Regardless, the plague’s devastation spares no place. It can serve as an exaggerated, but symbolic foreshadowing of the United States if national policy and the citizenry ignore science.
In today’s global world, more than the medieval world struck by the Black Plague, transportation, business networks and tourism shrink the globe into a small test tube perfect for incubating viral destruction. Comparing game maps with maps of Covid-19’s spreading across southeast Asia into Europe across the Atlantic and everywhere else give students a graphic picture of how a virus spread. Data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) can be used to draw parallels with the in-game data to discuss response to the pandemic, both by country, and, with the United Sates, by state. This, in turn, produces a forum for talk about state politics, the relation between state and federal response, and national and international responses. Is the U.S.’s dismissal of the World Health Organization a good strategy amid a world health crisis? The game answers that question for students.
The game also offers frequent updates like the “Fake News” scenario. For my most recent game play, I selected the New Science denial scenario. What an excellent opportunity this scenario presents for students to talk about the implications of distrusting science and research. Conversely, such discussions might also push students to pursue research as a necessary step to solving any public health or other health related problems ranging the opioid epidemic to breast cancer.
Darkness and Decay or Cooperation and Hope?
In addition to the rich discussion of a critical public health issue, these two texts offer less evident, but important political messages. Prince Prospero rules as an authoritarian leader. He may or may not be a benevolent dictator, but for sure he decides as sole decision maker with no checks and balances. When he closes his principality, he chooses to protect or try to protect only the members of his court, i.e. the wealthy. How do authoritarian regimes handle a crisis vis-à-vis democratic countries, i.e. China and Russia as against say Italy and the United States? What happens to a democracy when checks and balances are eroded, and a crisis presents greater leeway for a leader to make unilateral decisions? Can one person make fair and balanced decisions for the many? Finally, in a global crisis that demands a coordinated international response between different forms of government, including adversarial governments. What will happen when some countries isolate, and pull in their boundaries like Prince Prospero? I provide the answer with my Game Over Screen below.
We are living in a time where many problems are global and need a cooperative approach like that required by the board game Pandemic for any resolution to happen. At the same time, in the U.S. partisan self-interest at the expense of the common good seems more prevalent than ever and ethical decision making has virtually evaporated into the ether. The United Nations issued an absolutely shameful report on the world’s failure to meet a single biodiversity goal in stopping the destruction of nature.1 Moreover, Covid-19 has interrupted progress on sustainability goals leaving greater equity gaps than ever before and an actual increase in world poverty.2 It is imperative we help students think critically, make ethical decisions and act in a global context or the result will be as inevitable as the fate of Prince Prospero’s kingdom.
1. “World fails to meet a single target to stop destruction of nature – UN report,” The Guardian, 15/09/2020, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/every-global-target-to-stem-destruction-of-nature-by-2020-missed-un-report-aoe, 9/16/2020. Web.
2. “Sustainable Devolvement Goals Report 2020,” The United Nations, retrieved from https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020/, September 18, 2020. Web.
Pandemic, Z-Man Games, 2008. Matt Leacock designer. Board Game.
Plague, Inc. Ndemic Creations, 2012. Video game. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masgue of the Red Death,” in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, edited by Stuart Levine and Susan Levine, University of Illinois Press, 1950. Print. There are a few places to read Poe online. For classroom purposes I recommend the Poe Museum (physically based in Richmond, Virginia) where(physically based in Richmond, Virginia) where students can listen to an expert read the story in an appropriate setting.