Duquesne-Designed Game to Help Reduce Vaccine Hesitancy

A new game being developed at Duquesne hopes to reduce anxiety about COVID-19 and combat vaccine misinformation for children, parents and teachers. The board game challenges players to tackle a hypothetical global pandemic by researching, developing, testing and distributing a vaccine to save humanity.

Partnership in Education team members Brinley Kantorski (left) and Sarah Will play You Make Me Sick, an award-winning game that teaches players about infectious diseases.
Partnership in Education team members Brinley Kantorski (left) and Sarah Will (right) play You Make Me Sick, an award-winning game that teaches players about infectious diseases.

The game is part of a five-year Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which focuses on educating children and teens on how to manage pain, anxiety and stress in a healthy way.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. John Pollock, director of Duquesne’s Partnership in Education program, surveyed parents and children about their everyday stressors. He found that children are more worried about the health effects of COVID-19 than parents realized.

“We found a disconnect between the things parents thought were stressing children as opposed to the things that were actually causing children’s own stress,” Pollock, professor of biological sciences, said. “When we surveyed children, their greatest stressors did not align with the perceptions of parents and teachers.”

The new board game will allow for cooperative play, in which players must work together to save humanity from a global pandemic. Players model the real-life steps of vaccine development, manage both monetary and time constraints, evaluate various vaccine types and consider how to produce and distribute the vaccine to meet approval from the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization. The game also will combat misinformation and pseudoscientific obstacles.

The game’s development follows the success of 2020’s You Make Me Sick, another SEPA-funded, award-winning board game from the Partnership in Education that teaches students about infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Brinley Kantorski, director of education and multimedia development, and Sarah Will, lead artist and designer, have guided the Partnership in Education’s successful development of several other SEPA-funded games, including the app Dermis Defense and apps on sports-related concussion and sleep. Kantorski and Will said their passion for games has been an important element in their success.

“Educational games first and foremost need to be fun and engaging before they can be vehicles for learning,” Kantorski said. “Once you’re having fun, you may not even notice that you’re learning.”

Ultimately, the goal of the new game is to reduce vaccine hesitancy by providing solid, evidence-based scientific information, Pollock said.

“There is a lot of misinformation surrounding vaccines,” Pollock, who also co-directs the University’s Chronic Pain Research Consortium, said. “By embedding relevant scientific facts throughout the game’s interactive activities, children become integrated into the whole experience in ways that can improve knowledge and shift attitudes about vaccines.

“We believe that this information can also relieve some anxiety,” Pollock said, adding that children who play the game may become “informational ambassadors” who help educate others in their communities.

Pollock, who has developed a variety of educational and multimedia resources geared toward school children, received one of only 12 new NIGMS awards aimed at cultivating innovative educational resources that address SARS-CoV-2 vaccine hesitancy. He has received more than $1.4 million from the NIGMS SEPA program for this project. It marks the fourth SEPA award presented to Pollock and the Partnership in Education. NIH funding of $6.3 million has anchored the program since 2001.

“Our mandate is to educate pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students and community audiences and to fight disinformation about the safety and value of vaccination,” Pollock said.

In addition to his Partnership in Education team, Pollock is working with Dr. Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and staff from the center, as well as Dr. Cathy Morton, director of the West Virginia University Health Sciences & Technology Academy (HSTA), a SEPA-supported mentoring program that helps high school students in underserved areas enter STEM-based degree programs.

Duquesne’s Partnership in Education program reflects the University’s commitment to providing education and training programs that help improve equity and opportunity in the region.