Simulating a Pandemic: Technology’s Promise & Failure

Peter Krapp smiles at the camera
Peter Krapp is an expert on digital culture and media

How can technology help us understand and process today’s pandemic? In this episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, interviews Peter Krapp, professor of film and media studies, about the video games, films, and simulations that not only offer insight into pandemics but also the means to predict where the current pandemic may go.

Tyrus Miller (0:06–0:24): Hello, everyone, thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I’m joined today by Peter Krapp, professor of film and media studies, and an internationally recognized scholar of digital culture and media. Hello, Peter.

Peter Krapp (0:24–0:26): Thanks for having me.

Miller (0:22–0:52): Today we’re gonna talk about computer games, spreading a virus. We’ll discuss how computer simulations model a pandemic and what that allows us to say about digital culture. So tell us a little bit about a game you’re playing and what might that game tells us about our current situation, with pandemic and with contagion.

Krapp (0:54–2:45): I came across a game that has been taking off since January of this year. It’s called “Plague Inc.,” “Plague Incorporated,” and it’s simulating an epidemic. It’s been an increasingly popular download in 2020 and became one of the top played games on the Apple App store, surpassing Minecraft, which is pretty amazing, despite the fact that it’s eight years old, which is almost stale in the mobile game industry. It was developed by a U.K. company about eight years ago and three years ago, it also became a board game and it’s one of several games of that type. There’s another one called “Pandemic 2.5” that lets you play with viruses or bacterial diseases, parasites that are infecting the planet, and in a maybe slightly morbid way, this has become a very popular category.

Interestingly “Plague Incorporated,” the game that I’ve been exploring, has also been recently banned from the iOS App Store and from Steam in China — either in an attempt to mitigate negative press around the spread of COVID-19 or because of a recent update in the game that allows you to spread not just a virus but also fake news, and you know, the fake news mode caught the attention of the censors. At any rate, about 130 million players have downloaded this game “Plague Inc.” since 2012, and in the most recent version, it actually lets you save the world instead of infecting everyone.

Miller (2:45–3:51): That’s really interesting. I’ll just say that your comments about the currency of this — it’s obviously a big concern now, and in some of my other conversations with Chris Fan about science fiction, we were talking about something as old as, you know, in the 1970s, “The Andromeda Strain,” which is an epidemic narrative. I was talking with Jonathan Alexander about representations of the AIDS crisis, but it seems to be something that periodically comes to the fore again, while being a kind of consistent background of concern for really a long time. I did want to pick up something, which is that between the analogy between playing at spreading fake news and spreading a virus, that clearly relates to media studies and some of the concerns that we have about media. How, beyond that, is this a topic for media studies?

Krapp (3:51–5:55): Well, media studies is, you could say, the introduction of questions of technology into the humanities and it shifts the focus from storytelling in older modes, literary modes, or even film. Another good example from the seventies matching “The Andromeda Strain” is one of the most expensive Japanese sci-fi films of all time. It’s called “Virus” by Sonny Chiba, a film that too few people may be watching right now. There are many examples like that but gaming and interactive simulations make it just much more palpable and tractable. There are networks of technologies and institutions that allow us as a culture to selectively store and process data and manipulate the data on a screen. This has a long history, of course, from war gaming to computing in Second World War era trajectories and explosions and then from flight simulators to radar screens to our current immersive graphic user interfaces and control devices such as the ones that we’re using right here to talk to each other remotely.

There’s a whole history of cultural artifacts and gateways to alternate realities that allows us to model things, try out hypotheticals, so it’s not just a realm of science fiction or fiction. Simulation is not just for climate modeling of futurology and instead of making that distinction between fiction or science, we can see that out of these technologies, out of these developments, rose whole new entertainment genres including games but also a range of other industries like virtual reality, augmented reality, other new media. So I would say every game is a simulation; not every simulation is a game.

Miller (5:58–6:26): Sure, so you’re also talking about the way in which technological advances and scientific paradigms and so forth may be affecting culture and actually generating creativity in the cultural sphere. How about in the other direction? And what are some of the ways in which what we would think of as humanistic concerns around meaning or narrative or the thematics of culture, how are those shaping the technologies and in particular digital culture?

Krapp (6:38–10:37): When we teach and when we research the history of media and of technologies, we might be using something popular like film, television, or game culture in order to get to the slightly drier and more difficult to illustrate ideas about the progress of technology in general. But as I said, it’s true that games are not always scientific models but they draw on how science has been using modeling. There’s a lot of scientific endeavors that are difficult or dangerous to do without the help of simulations. We have a nuclear stockpile; we need to test whether that’s ready, we need to test whether it’s deteriorating in a way that doesn’t endanger people.

Or even the old example of the flight simulator. Flight simulators are really crucial, even today, to train pilots and keep them and their skills up to date on various flight models. They’re used to teach somebody to fly. That’s a risky and expensive thing. You don’t want to crash planes or have pilots fail before they become proficient so you use a simulator. Simulations are a training device. They’re a test device and they allow us to explore data sets that make all kinds of scientific fields more tractable.

Colleagues at UC Berkeley have published a website that offers a mask sim to demonstrate the effect of wearing a face mask and how they can curb the spread of the coronavirus. It comes with a simple four-minute tutorial video illustrating. Or there’s an epidemiologist in Germany who developed a COVID-19 simulator at COVID.sim.eu, where certain aspects of the spread and mitigation measures can be variables.

It lets you, yourself, explore models of social distancing, timing lock-downs. You see how you can enhance or prevent herd immunity or what kind of infection peaks you can expect, you extrapolate from certain assumptions and you can sort of evaluate hypotheticals, you can test your own assumptions, you can test longer or shorter periods, stricter or less-strict social distancing, how many people observe those rules, all right? So it teaches you to question your own assumptions. The humanities need to do that just as much as the hard sciences and from the humanities, the simulations take all kinds of data displays, visualizations.

The advances in computer graphics that we rely on now are what makes these things tractable and plausible, not just to specialists but also to a more general audience and in general, it’s still about storytelling, which is of course the humanities’ domain. These simulations would be incomprehensible, they would not be good communication, they would not be good testing, if they were just restricted to symbols or numbers. So they use a kaleidoscopic range of infographics, of displays, and other ways to convey very complex data. That’s something that the game industry has been pushing further and further and further, not just in terms of graphics but also in forms of interactive storytelling, of inviting people to explore a complicated data set, a complicated situation, a virtual world.

Miller (10:38–12:14): Part of what I take that you’re saying is that this world of data, and some of it is directly out there as data flows and information flows. Others are complex, multi-sided, large-scale phenomena that can be probably most appropriately modeled and captured by computational processes. We nevertheless, as human beings, sometimes have difficulty at actually just cognitively grasping that and certainly experientially and intuitively grasping it. The humanities have a whole set of historical — I’m gonna use this somewhat anachronistic turn, but an imagistic software and conceptual software that allows that interface to take place and it allows us to experience and understand those very complex worlds of data, whether those are models or actually data worlds themselves. It also sounds like you’re saying that gaming and simulation and a kind of play with this is a way of adapting and training oneself into both a set of practices but also a kind of computational mindset that allows you to enter into these spaces and find your way around.

Krapp (12:15–15:53): Exactly. These are the newer forms of firing up the graphics engine that is your mind to follow along your metaphorical trail here to engage the imagination not just with words or storytelling but also with writing, with graphs, with illustrations, and then with time-based media, with films, with animations, and once you can make that interactive, it goes one step further than just a slideshow or a film or a video or a set of instructional guidelines on how to use a technology. It trains us to interact with our multiple different devices and screens, it trains us to explore complicated datasets. Nothing — no device that we’ve come up with — is better at chaining together multiple decision trees of what if, what if, what if, what if, what if. Whether you use that for betting or for extrapolating into the near future of weather patterns or stock market patterns or of employment tendencies, et cetera. Everything that we ask ourselves about at the most complex level.

We can try to use computers to understand, and understand it better, but it doesn’t mean that we do away with the traditional way to engage people, especially people who are not the main experts in how that can be seen, how could that can be imagined, right?

To go back to the idea that sci-fi is a forerunner of this kind of engagement, there’s a great example of simulation storytelling that is the 1973 film “World on a Wire” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which is a low-budget but very inventive adaptation of an American dystopian sci-fi novel from 1964 called Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye. It’s about a corporation manufacturing a supercomputer that generates and supports a virtual world robust enough for the entities in it to believe themselves to be real. It’s set in an institute for cybernetics and futurology that, at the time, was very futuristic. To us, looks like it’s steeped in art history or in film history, entirely in the service of letting us explore this idea of what is artificial intelligence, what are computers going to be if you extrapolate their current development, what can human-computer interaction be and how do you maintain the place of the human in the loop? Because it’s clear that machines can talk to each other very efficiently, but if it’s going to be a technology in the service of humans, in theservice of mankind, whether for entertainment or for more serious pursuits, you need to make sure that the interfaces still are communicating at a human scale and that it looks meaningful to us. The humanities bring not just storytelling experience to this but an interpretive, a hermeneutic competence. How do we understand what makes meaning? How do we ask questions about that meaning? Media literacy and computer literacy play a big role here.

Miller (15:55–16:45): I’m also recalling out of film history, I believe sometime in the 1970s, that there’s that film with Robert Redford, “Three Days of the Condor,” where he’s a literature professor and his whole job is to read books and if there’s anything in the plots of novels that might be useful for them to think about in the work that they have to do.

In a little bit more of a real-life example, after 9/11, the Bush White House consulted with screenwriters and science fiction authors about disaster planning and they took a lot of ridicule and heat for this apparently frivolous exercise on their part. Is this any different?

Krapp (16:55–20:53): There might be a gradual difference in that screenwriters and science fiction authors are still basically dealing in linear storytelling, whereas interactive storytelling and simulations and games are nonlinear and it’s more interactive but that might be a quibble. The idea that fiction or stories are trivial is an error. I would put it this way: What if all of these thought experiments were not only a way to articulate often obscured connections between fiction and simulation, between philosophy and science, between storytelling and critical arguments, but also a way to reconcile those hard science cultures of computing and the artistic or a humanistic tradition of posing critical questions?

The idea that fiction or stories are trivial is an error. I would put it this way: What if all of these thought experiments were not only a way to articulate often obscured connections between fiction and simulation, between philosophy and science, between storytelling and critical arguments, but also a way to reconcile those hard science cultures of computing and the artistic or a humanistic tradition of posing critical questions?

It’s true that after 9/11, that consulting came in for some ridicule but I think it’s also true that there’s some value to collectively imagining solutions and communicating them, especially in politics. Politics has become very heavily suffused with audio-visual media and the way that we conduct our political affairs is heavily mediated through television, through Twitter, through all kinds of other channels and it’s not good enough to this point, to domain experts, who have a lot of experience with preparing for a pandemic but didn’t really get the nation to a state of readiness. There was a 2012 study on pandemics by Rand, a think tank. There was a 2015 interview that Ezra Klein did with Bill Gates, who had warned in a TED talk about a pandemic. There was a 2017 exercise by Homeland Security for experts working in the Obama White House on preparing for a contagious respiratory disease. The National Security Council heard in 2018 about the centenary of the flu epidemic. In 2019 in October in New York City there was a tabletop simulation exercise conducted by Johns Hopkins and their Center for Health Security about a possible threat to the U.S. by a pandemic, so it’s not that that knowledge doesn’t exist.

The question is really: How does this knowledge become comprehensible? How is it communicated to the stakeholders? How do we make decisions based on that knowledge? It’s not enough to watch films like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from 2014 to see that viruses are a threat to humans. We can say that’s escapism, that’s entertainment. We need modes of taking this more seriously without being alarmist and simulations do that very well. Simulations allow you to take some responsibilities for how these factors come together. And by the way, games do that particularly well, so that when “Plague Incorporated,” the game that I mentioned earlier, became popular after first being published, the CDC, the center for, you know, all kinds of expertise in communicative diseases, said they were interested in “Plague Incorporated” as a non-traditional route to raise public awareness on epidemiology, on disease transmission, on pandemic information because a game can create a compelling world that engages the public on serious public health topics, more so than a press release from somebody doing research.

Miller (20:54–21:35): There’s a kind of a let’s say, a knowledge front, but also what I’ll call a meaning front, which may be not requiring the same sort of criteria as knowledge but allows people to get a hold of it and to be motivated and to be moved by it. So would you say that’s maybe where one of the dimensions of the pandemic simulation has relevance to humanities research? What would you see as kind of the main points of relevance of this to humanities research?

Krapp (21:35–23:59): Well, one really crucial thing that we all say we do and we do do it but we don’t always explain to people in other disciplines what we mean by it is critical thinking, asking all kinds of questions that explore the assumptions, right? In models, in simulations, it’s much more explicit than in other things that we analyze. One of the main differences in terms of trying to understand what the coronavirus is or does is modeled very differently in two very influential studies. One that’s identified as coming from Imperial College London and one that other universities in the U.K. proposed and the government of the United Kingdom was kind of torn between two different models. They have access to the same facts but they make slightly different assumptions, so the difference between such models brings out that if you question assumptions, if you don’t just consume information as it’s presented, but you question how it is presented and you see, one of these models assumes that only half of the population were going to follow guidance on social distancing, if you assume that three-quarters of your population might follow guidance, that makes a huge difference. If you assume that only one-quarter of your population follows political or health officials in social distance guidance, that makes a huge difference. You’re exploring models.

Simulations allow us to make more obvious what humanities scholars and students do all the time, which is to question assumptions and to play around with hypotheticals that make not just stories, books, films or non-fiction accounts, but also board games, roleplay, planning simulations, et cetera, the object of study, of interpretation. We need to keep up with models, even models outside of our own core humanities competence, and you know, train ourselves in media literacy and in scientific literacy and in hypothetical literacy.

Simulations allow us to make more obvious what humanities scholars and students do all the time, which is to question assumptions and to play around with hypotheticals.

Miller (24:00–24:48): I love that term of hypothetical literacy. It does actually highlight some of the stakes of simulation, that simulations do matter. Actually, the kind of embedded assumptions whether those are epistemic in nature, or in more hidden ways, ideological or cultural, that these simulations really have significant stakes and maybe even in some cases life-or-death significance. I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about that sense of simulation and the potential conflicts of simulations as well.

Krapp (24:48–28:55): Exactly. Exactly. We in the humanities have a long history of philosophical and fictional and other kind of hypothetical exploration of different metaphors for communication and for interpretation. The camera obscura played an important role for Descartes or for Locke. Today the epistemic model that a lot of us are dealing with is a computer, but there’s a lot of misrepresentation, misunderstanding of what the history of computing is and where the history of computing points. I would say that simulation is a cultural technique, not just a scientific technique but a cultural technique and it shouldn’t just be something to question the basis of our lived experience. We often hear quoted the journalist Neil deGrasse Tyson or philosophers like Nick Bostrom, who hyperbolically posit the probabilistic phantasm that there’s a 50% chance that we already live in a simulated world. That’s just a guess that doesn’t lend itself to any respectable process of falsification or verification either in humanities terms or in scientific terms. An even more astonishing version of that was when Elon Musk, the entrepreneur, recently asserted that the chance we’re not living in a computer simulation is one in billions and if we’re not already in a Matrix-style world, then the world is about to end.

Now, I find a couple of things fascinating with these kinds of pronouncements — Matrix-style world, that’s an allusion to film and so the humanities could come in and say, you know, actually, have we fully understood what the three films in the “Matrix” trilogy are about? That aside, it’s not surprising that some people would rather believe in a simulation than a “the world’s about to end” kind of scenario, but this kind of rhetoric that Musk offers or that Bostrum and Tyson offer is very reductionist. Either we will make simulations that we can’t tell apart from the real, or civilization will cease to exist. That’s a very stark choice and it rests on two assumptions that Musk has to make to arrive at that kind of formulation. One, that the rate of improvement from very simple and primitive graphics, let’s say Pong’s two rectangles and a dot, to very photorealistic three-dimensional graphics and animations that we can immerse ourselves in can be extrapolated much further without any limitations and it will very soon erase the possibility of telling the difference between reality and simulation. The other assumption is that no civilization has yet arrived at this kind of inflection point without carrying its own seeds of destruction. I think both of these ideas need to be debated and in fact the second one especially has been debated very lively manner in humanities, in science fiction, in film, in speculative storytelling and all kinds of very serious novels, et cetera.

The first assumption, that we can just simply assume that technological progress will continue exactly as it has in the past, that’s also kind of questionable. From a humanities side, we bring to the study of simulation not just a look back at the history of these technologies but also a way to question certain assumptions and, as you just said, to see the implications for all kinds of human forms of expression, of communication, et cetera.

Miller (28:56–29:29): It sounds like you’re positing or you’re analyzing a world that is perhaps more populated by more kinds of simulation in more areas, but also still holding on to the idea that there’s a much more complex interaction between what we might call real-world and simulation and vice-versa and can be really just captured by either kind of fundamentalism that you played out there.

Krapp (29:29–30:00): These simulations are very real. I don’t think they exist on a separate plane and they’re part of how we have organized our social, political, economic, or educational systems for ourselves so as we use them, you and I right now, we also need to keep up with our understanding of what it is that we are using instead of just black-boxing it and assuming that what we’re offered superficially is a good enough understanding of it.

Miller (30:01–30:22): That’s great. Are there any other areas of digital culture and our response to the pandemic that you’re engaged with now either in your teaching or your academic research? It seems like a very rich topic beyond this very rich topic of simulations.

Krapp (30:23–32:42): One thing that I follow very actively is the idea, and the very lively and contentious debates around, contact tracking apps and their potential role in fighting the virus or mitigating the spread of a virus. These debates are being led very differently depending on which country or which area in the world you look at. People in European countries have different expectations and values from people in various Asian countries or in the United States. It’s not just different technical models that are competing for our attention here but also different values in terms of the protection of privacy or policies about data retention. It has far-reaching consequences for our trust in institutions, whether they are public institutions like governments or health organizations, or private institutions like technology companies that might offer such tracking apps. And it has consequences for our mobile communication infrastructure in general, and this is, by the way, something that people in game studies have been looking at for quite a while because a lot of mobile games are already relying on ways to track and trace the activity of mobile devices. Sometimes use those for playful or for ludic ends but also use them for advertising and for monetizing so we’ve been studying this closely for a while and it’s part of our research and teaching. I don’t think there’s going to be an easy answer.

Now of course, the problem with that is that tracking apps are more meaningful if more people use them. They’re not going to be very helpful if very few people opt in. They’re not going to be helpful if people have lack of trust in what they can do and if two different countries that share a border have different apps you lose track of people the moment they potentially cross borders or cross over into a different network. There are both technical and philosophical aspects of it that I find really fascinating.

Miller (32:43–33:36): That’s a really interesting point of just the way in which the pandemic virus, the pandemic situation, has revealed all of these kinds of differences and divergences between urban and rural, between different kinds of national contexts, in the U.S., even in state and regional contexts, of conceptions that may not be particularly explicitly articulated but nevertheless are motivating people in particular ways about their sense of freedom, obedience, privacy and responsibility. And it traverses the whole range, not just obviously the question of apps and the digital sphere, but kind of in the whole range in which we exercise. I find the research we’re pointing to to be an important contribution to what’s going to definitely be an ongoing and very topical discussion.

Krapp(33:47–33:54): Exactly. Straight from the headlines but suffused in the history of things that humanities care most about.

Miller (33:54–34:11): Well, thank you so much, Peter, for your time and for sharing your expertise with us. And for those of you who are watching, I want to thank you all and we will see you in our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thank you, Peter.

Krapp (34:12–34:13): Thank you.

Related links:

The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.

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