For Science!
What Plague Inc. Teaches Us About Ebola and Pandemics

CJ Miozzi | 27 Aug 2014 21:00
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What can we learn from the sim?

Plague Inc icon

So what went wrong? Why was my simulated Ebola so inaccurate? Part of the reason was that it took me a long time to evolve all of Ebola's deadly symptoms, which was reflected in it taking a long time for the disease to start killing people. But the other reason is that Plague Inc. simply isn't designed for a disease like Ebola. "The default Plague Inc. models rely on the potential for asymptomatic carriers as well as airborne transmission," said Vaughan, "preventing perfect modelling of Ebola." Basically, my simulated Ebola was spreading more than its real-world counterpart. Of course, this is by design - after all, regardless of how accurate it may be, Plague Inc. is a game and not a true simulator. "The algorithms in Plague Inc. are very complex and do a good job of modelling the world - however, it is important to note that Plague Inc. is a game, and I have had to depart from realism in places in order to ensure it is fun," said Vaughan.

But that doesn't mean my exercise was one in futility - on the contrary. In fact, any adept Plague Inc. player can testify that a winning strategy is to keep your lethality and visibility low and your infectivity high until you've spread throughout the world. With Ebola, both real and simulated, the fact that its lethality and visibility is high - that is to say, it kills its host fairly quickly and it presents very visible symptoms - means that it will likely never be a world-killer. My Ebola died out because it simply couldn't spread fast enough, relative to how fast its hosts were dying and how quickly countries were closing their borders. Similarly, real-world Ebola is too visible and too effective a killer to pose a threat to humanity's existence.

Will an Ebola scenario be added to Plague Inc.?

Plague Inc. includes scenarios for swine flu, smallpox, zombies, and most recently, through a partnership with 20th Century Fox and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the "Simian Flu." Vaughan has received many requests to add an Ebola scenario to his game to more accurately simulate the current outbreak; however, there are no current plans to do so. "It is very important not to appear to be trivializing such a serious issue," he said, and I can only imagine the number of people who would accuse him of trying to cash in on tragedy were he to release an Ebola scenario. Instead, Vaughan has been in talks with a few charities and organizations involved in combating Ebola about using Plague Inc. to raise either awareness or funds for the cause.

Plague Inc CDC

While there is still work to be done to stop the outbreak, Vaughan feels we're in safe hands. As part of his visit to the CDC, he was also given a tour of the Emergency Operations Center, which is where the CDC is currently managing its response to the Ebola outbreak. "I find it reassuring to know that there are so many dedicated people working to keep us all safe," he said. Vaughan called his trip to the CDC "exceptionally interesting," and from it was able to draw a huge amount of background material for modelling the human response to pandemics. The trip has helped shape the development of Plague Inc.: variables relating to how different countries react to pandemics were tweaked, real-world CDC news headlines were added to the game, and the most obvious thing to players is that the CDC will attempt to locate Patient Zero - the first person to have contracted the disease.

It may not be the perfect pandemic sim, but Plague Inc. has likely done more to educate the public on disease transmission than many awareness campaigns. "I think Plague Inc. is best at communicating the broad threat of a pandemic as well as highlighting specific elements of Ebola and other infectious diseases," Vaughan says. "Most importantly, I think it shows players how a disease in one country can threaten the whole world."

The threat of global pandemic is out there - it's just not Ebola. It's the quiet ones you have to look out for.


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