Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Pathology of Plague Inc.

Robert Rath | 16 May 2013 16:00
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Plague Inc. Screen 01

Plague Inc. also depicts human response efforts to fight pandemics. Most of these measures are mechanical translations of CDC and WHO measures to halt the spread of disease. Culling birds or livestock for instance, or distributing facemasks. Other measures involve shutting ports or recommending people practice social distancing. Public health countermeasures like these are an active part of life in many parts of the world, including the United States - during 2009 when the WHO issued a pandemic alert for Swine Flu, many businesses in the U.S. quietly developed contingency plans that would allow employees to work remotely from home. Hong Kong, which developed a societal paranoia of contamination after the SARS outbreak, is currently quarantining anyone who returns from the Chinese mainland with H7N9 symptoms. (Hong Kong is extreme. Even when there's no threat of an epidemic, buildings sterilize their elevator buttons up to six times a day.) Island nations like Madagascar, Greenland, Iceland and Papua New Guinea also have geographical defenses by their natural separation, meaning that shutting down travel in or out of the country can be an effective barrier against pandemics - much to the frustration of certain Escapist editors. It's a realistic portrayal. During the 1918 flu pandemic the U.S. Navy issued a total quarantine order for American Samoa, closing its ports. As a result, the territory escaped without a single infection. Western Samoa, on the other hand, kept its port open - and lost twenty percent of its population.

That's a terrible blow, but note that it killed twenty percent, not one hundred. And that's the behind-the-scenes secret to Plague Inc.'s design: it's weighted in favor of the contagion. In order to make the game playable - and winnable - Vaughan had to take liberties for the sake of game balance and that includes some pretty major assumptions. The first of these is that the disease can infect humans in the first place - a major stumbling block. The next assumption is the player. Having a human intelligence controlling the disease means that the illness reacts to changing conditions much more nimbly than random mutations would.

For example, if your plague isn't taking hold in Russia players can start buying up cold immunity, whereas a real pathogen would just have to roll the genetic dice. Human agency allows a virus or fungus to not only adapt but to strategize and plan for the future, boosting its immunities to medication or jumping to rats while the world's scientists are still chasing livestock.

Likewise, the maladies in Plague Inc. do something completely impossible for real-life diseases: simultaneous mutation. If you purchase the coughing symptom for your virus, the game doesn't start a new mutant strain that carries on parallel to the new strain; instead all patients across the globe suddenly develop a cough. That would be like a baby being born with eleven fingers spontaneously causing the whole human race to sprout an extra pinky as well. "The concept of 'simultaneous mutation' is one area which gives the player a big advantage," owns Vaughan, and it's one of many "gameplay sacrifices," that need to be made in order for the game to appeal to a wider audience.

These sacrifices also include making diseases advance through a population faster than normal. "In order to be an entertaining game, I couldn't have people waiting around for years before anything big happened so I had to accelerate some things," he says. "Also note that the human race is 100% susceptible to the disease - in Plague Inc., no one has natural immunity, no one recovers from the disease, no one survives!" During real pandemics, groups of people will be genetically immune from infection or recover faster than others. Much of the social strain during the Black Plague stemmed from the fact that the disease seemed so random and there was no detectible pattern of death - meaning people considered the plague a divine punishment that killed some and spared others. The result was everything from witch hunts to something far more cataclysmic: seeing two of his closest friends die influenced Martin Luther's decision to join the Catholic Church.

In fact, while the game's primary rhetorical purpose is to give the player a sense of human vulnerability, Vaughan's research revealed something surprising: humanity's extreme durability as a species. While pandemics in the past have killed millions of people, and there's always another waiting at the door, it's almost impossible for a single disease to wipe out all of humanity. Discarding our scientific defenses, our vaccines and N95 masks and sterilization, it's our genetic diversity - our strength in difference - that actually protects us as a species.

In the end, we survive because we're as unique and ever-changing as the pathogens that assault us.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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