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When a phone game fantasy is eerily close to reality

Plague Inc. is a sufficiently disturbing variation of the world we all live in now, if only we were the ones controlling the disease rather than fighting it. The game takes place on a world map, with the sickness represented by an expanding mass of red. Players control a disease, choosing where it begins, how it spreads and how lethal it is. The illness spreads from country to country, while a bar representing the development of a cure slowly fills.

The game’s difficulty is determined by a complex algorithm that factors in, among other things, how frequently people in its virtual world wash their hands. Players win if humanity is extinguished. They lose if humanity finds a cure.

The difficulty levels of Plague Inc. speak for themselves.

The difficulty levels of Plague Inc. speak for themselves.

Plague Inc. has long been a hit for Vaughan and his 10-person studio, Ndemic Creations. According to their most recent annual report, the game has attracted more than 130 million players since its release.

The spikes in popularity that occur during health crises are nevertheless notable. They signal that instead of shunning a game like this during a pandemic, people talk about it.

It’s actually very hard to wipe out all of humanity with a disease.

James Vaughan

Vaughan does not promote his game as educational, though it earned praise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 for raising awareness about the spread of sickness. The game includes elements familiar to our current real world situation, including complications caused by sick airline passengers and strict quarantines.

The only thing that has significantly slowed Plague Inc. this year is the Chinese government. In late February, as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in China neared 80,000, regulators banned the game for “illegal” content, according to a notice shared online by Ndemic Creations. Plague Inc. has not been sold there since, and Vaughan says his studio had not received more explanation for the ban. “You could draw your own assumptions on it,” he says.

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In Plague Inc.‘s absence, numerous copycats have cropped up, according to Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at Niko Partners and a longtime observer of the Chinese game market. China has also seen a burst of explicitly anti-COVID-19 games. One, called Battle of Pathogens, replaces the fruit of Fruit Ninja, with pathogens to slice.

Vaughan laments Plague Inc.‘s fate in China, but he has spent his energy working on a new mode that will flip the dynamic and let players fight the spread of a pandemic. It is something he says he started thinking about before he released the game and is motivated to make it now. Work on this new mode is delaying other ideas for Plague Inc., including a plan to work vaccine opponents into the game, which Vaughan wanted to implement in response to a popular online petition last year. His studio paired an announcement in March about the new mode with a pledge to donate a quarter-million dollars to organizations fighting COVID-19.

Vaughan is not sure when he will finish making the new mode. He is not even sure how all of its underlying systems will function: “It’s a bit like taking an old clock apart using your mind and having all the bits floating around in the air in front of you, and then putting it back together a different way and seeing if it works.”

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That has given Vaughan some insight into how pandemics function. He has been doing the calculations for more than a decade, and he admits he had to make the disease unrealistically powerful to make the game winnable. Plague Inc. has always given outbreaks some edges they don’t have in real life, such as the ability to mutate around the world at once. Otherwise, the disease would always lose. He will be removing those advantages for the new anti-pandemic mode.

“It’s actually very hard to wipe out all of humanity with a disease,” he says. “I guess that’s reassuring in some sense. But it doesn’t change the fact that the situation we’re in at the moment is still horrendously scary.”

The New York Times

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