How viral video game Plague Inc. taps into coronavirus fears

Eight years after launching, mobile game Plague Inc. is providing valuable information on how to deal with the current pandemic threat.

You only need to take a look at supermarket shelves to see the impact that the coronavirus has had on purchasing power.

Panic buying of loo rolls and hand sanitiser may be a knee-jerk reaction to the health threat that COVID-19 poses, but the virus is also having an impact on less essential buying choices.

At the time of writing, Plague Inc. is currently sitting top of the UK’s App Store’s paid games chart, even above perennial chart-topper Minecraft, despite being released way back in 2012. The game simulates the spread of viruses and diseases and tasks the player with being the pathogen as the world responds to prevent deaths.

If it sounds familiar, it should – it’s the scenario that has been playing out on the news ever since the first cases of coronavirus began in China back in January.

We specifically designed the game to be realistic and informative, while not sensationalising serious real-world issues

For some, the immersion that games bring can offer time out away from the stresses and strains of daily life. This is a role that Plague Inc. has played for years, attracting more than 130 million players in its eight-year lifespan.

But just how the game has gone, well, viral, in recent weeks demonstrates that the app is also tapping into the wider consciousness too.

And it is not something that the developer Ndemic Creations have shied away from. Strategy consultant James Vaughan set up the firm to develop Plague Inc. specifically but even he could have scarcely predicted that his first game would see him addressing the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in 2013. He told CDC’s Ali S Khan: “It makes people think about infectious disease in a new light – helping them realise the threats that we face every day.

“An interesting fact is that it has also become an educational tool – teachers and professors often get in touch to let me know how they used Plague Inc. to illustrate biological and economical concepts to their students.”

The modelling tool that forms the basis of the game hasn’t just been used for viruses either – in December last year Big Issue Changemaker Full Fact teamed up with Ndemic to add a fake news scenario to the game to raise awareness of how misinformation spreads.

But the recent outbreak has also hit Ndemic hard. Authorities in China have banned the game from the App Store and Steam highlighting “illegal content”, a move that the games studio has described as “very sad”.

Their statement read: “Whenever there is an outbreak of disease we see an increase in players, as people seek to find out more about how diseases spread and to understand the complexities of viral outbreaks.

“We specifically designed the game to be realistic and informative, while not sensationalising serious real-world issues.

“However, please remember that Plague Inc. is a game, not a scientific model and that the current coronavirus outbreak is a very real situation which is impacting a huge number of people.”

So while the answer to quashing coronavirus isn’t sitting on an app on your iPhone – it’s not to say that academics haven’t looked to games to study how we react when the threat of a virus looms.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

Hugely popular massively multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft was afflicted with a virus of its own in 2005. Known as the Corrupted Blood incident, epidemiologists conducted academic studies into how players self-isolated while others, who were high-level and had little to fear from the disease, deliberately spread it, although researchers were cautious when it came to drawing firm conclusions from the game.

Some may argue that games on this subject are morbid, or trivialise the health risk we are facing. But while we wait for the full ramifications of the coronavirus to be felt in the UK, games like Plague Inc. have done plenty to publicise valuable information on how we respond to a health crisis.

Just remember to wash your hands thoroughly before trying the game on your phone.

Plague Inc. is available now on all gaming platforms