Coral Cross: ARG about pandemic flu

Stuart Candy of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies emailed me about their new alternate reality game, Coral Cross. Commissioned by the Hawaii Department of Health and bankrolled by the Center for Disease Control, the game is about… pandemic flu. Stuart says:

 Uploaded Images Cc2009-769289
In late 02007, the Health Dept approached myself and Jake Dunagan (now my colleague at Institute for the Future -dp) after they noticed our independent FoundFutures exstallation in Chinatown, Honolulu, manifesting tangible scenario elements of a bird flu outbreak in the year 02016. A year later, by September 02008, they had won a federal grant to do a demonstration public engagement project about preparing for a possible flu pandemic scenario. Wearing our Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies hats, we pitched them on an Alternate Reality Game as a way of getting people into the mindset of what that could feel like. There had not been an actual pandemic in 40 years (Hong Kong flu, 01968) and enabling this type of engagement against a backdrop of indifference and invisibility would be our major challenge. The ARG idea came about because I was just gearing up to serve as Game Master on Superstruct at the time, so ARGs were in the air. Also, it seemed a way to scale up the narrative depth of the scenario, while building on the work of others in for example After Shock and World Without Oil, as well as on what we had learned from doing FoundFutures projects, futures artifacts etc.

Our design team worked intensively on the project in the early months of 02009, planning to launch in the last week of May to coincide with public meetings about pandemic preparedness that were being planned by the Health Dept. The narrative was set in Hawaii in 02012, and the vehicle for telling the story was a nonprofit, grassroots organisation called Coral Cross of Oahu, set up in September 02011 after a category 5 hurricane devastated the island. Each day of gameplay would represent one month of narrative, so in the space of two weeks, visitors to the in-world website would experience a calm leadup to the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Cyrus, followed by the sudden onset of a flu pandemic, and the tumultuous six-month wait for a vaccine to become available. In the context of this story, they would tell their own, discuss the implications of the sudden social, economic, and political changes wrought by the virus, and develop a better sense of how they and their communities could respond to pandemic conditions.

In late April, however, reality overtook our alternate reality scenario. We watched in disbelief as, over two or three days, the swine flu epidemic in Mexico took hold, panic about it possibly going global began to spread, and the WHO and CDC raised their official alert levels. It was surreal. One day, we were filming a mock press conference set in 02012 and announcing the outbreak as part of our narrative introduction, and literally a day later, we were watching a real one on TV.

Our design team turned on a dime, proposing right away that, rather than being cancelled due to the early arrival of the future, the project be reoriented around current events. The result is that we maintained the late May launch date but over the last few weeks have completely reimagined the project as an Emergent Reality Game, the first of its kind. Rather than telling a story about a pandemic in the future, Coral Cross is now an experiment in using gaming mechanisms to support real-life pandemic preparedness today, and to try to outpace the flu with information that may help mitigate its spread. Players also have the opportunity to discuss the potential life-and-death questions of who should be prioritised in a vaccine queue for this or a future strain of influenza.

So, can information catch up to the virus? Let's hope so. People can follow the progress of the spread of our message at and sign up for notification when the full game goes live early next week.

Coral Cross