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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The virus is lethal and highly contagious. If unleashed in Gainesville, it would infect most UF students by the end of September.

Fortunately, the Muizenberg Mathematical Fever exists only in a game invented by Juliet Pulliam of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

Pulliam, 32, helped create a fictional virus as part of a simulation that teaches mathematicians to quantify how viruses such as HIV and MRSA spread through populations.

As of now, Pulliam’s game is low-tech. It involves passing out slips of paper to researchers who randomly select colleagues as victims. Last week, however, UF computer scientists expressed interest in creating a larger-scale, digital version for students.

“When you make a mistake in a video game, you get to hit the reset button and try again,” said game creator Jonathan Yuhas of UF’s Digital Worlds Institute. “We can give you a chance to mess up without getting killed.”

In January, Digital Worlds founded Serious and Applied Gaming Environments, or SAGE, the first UF initiative dedicated solely to tackling real-world problems with computer games.

Yuhas, 29, developed shooting games for a major commercial game studio before joining SAGE last year.

Now he builds mini-games to inform science, engineering and math students about the risks of plagiarism. Marston Science Library commissioned SAGE for the project after about 80 students were caught cheating in March.

Digital Worlds director James Oliverio, who oversees SAGE, emailed Pulliam to propose collaborating. He said they could produce an educational game together, available for iPhone, Android and other platforms, that illustrates how outbreaks spread.

If the tentative collaboration between Pulliam’s lab and SAGE comes to fruition, they could produce a virus-themed game in roughly three months to a year, Oliverio said.

Pulliam said she’s open to the idea, though she would want to adjust the focus of her original game if it were digitized. While her paper-based game began as a research tool for use in South Africa, where the Internet is less accessible, a smartphone app could reach UF students more effectively and show them how their behaviors affect outbreaks, she said.

Setting up a problem as if it were a game lets young people look at the “big picture” to understand the social impact of certain behaviors, such as wearing a condom or getting vaccinated, said Harvard economics professor Al Roth, who is an expert on game theory.

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“I think it would shock me to see a Facebook map of a virus spreading,” said Kevin Crawl, a 21-year-old public relations junior. “It would definitely make me more cautious and I’d encourage my friends to be safe.”

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