Plague Inc: Evolved, launched 5 years ago, has been brought back into the spotlight by the recent COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping the world. Many memes have been made with relation to this wildly popular game. So, for the uninitiated, what’s the hype about?
Let’s start off with understanding what this game is all about. The premise is clear: start off as a pathogen (I chose a virus in this case) of your choice, and no matter which you pick, your goal is to infect and wipe out humanity before the world finds a cure to you. You can choose the difficulty level according to how much you want to challenge yourself, but if you’re just starting out, I suggest you pick either Casual or Normal mode to get the hang of things first.
From here on, get into the mindset of your chosen pathogen. You will be making plenty of decisions that will determine if you can achieve your final, evil objective. Choose your starting country, gain points to evolve yourself so that you can transmit faster, infect more and finally wipe those pesky little humans off the face of planet Earth. Sounds like a plan, right?
By now, some of you will probably be wondering, is this game even suitable for me? It does sound like a morbid game, but rest assured that there is no gore involved, and you can also learn a thing or two which will help you to understand how outbreaks can hit so fast and hard.
Which mode of transmission should I adopt? What symptoms should I develop? How about abilities? The sheer amount of decisions you have to make may seem overwhelming, but the game allows you to pause and take your time to read through the details and think through your moves. Starting in a country with a cold climate? Evolving yourself to be cold resistant sounds about right. World beginning to take notice and find a cure? Fret not, develop some drug resistance to put a wrench in the works.
Strategy is key here. Finding the balance between infectivity and severity of your chosen pathogen during different stages of your playthrough determines if you achieve your sinister goal. Protip: symptoms increase the visibility of your outbreak, causing the humans to start researching on a cure earlier. So you may want to save evolving symptoms for later when you’ve got most of the world infected.
So how realistic or scientifically accurate is this game? Depending on what pathogen you have chosen, it comes with its own unique abilities which you can upgrade as you progress. For example, viruses have “Viral Instability” which increases the chances of it mutating symptoms randomly; bacteria have “Bacteria Resilience” which helps with resisting various climates. In reality, some types of viruses (especially RNA viruses) can have random mutations of their genetic code due to the way they hijack the host cell to replicate their DNA/RNA. These mutations can cause a change in symptoms and lethality of the virus – think of the flu virus which mutates so fast that you have to get vaccinated every year. As for the in-game bacteria ability, real bacteria have a cell wall as their protective layer, which guards them against the environment. This cell wall is also the target of many antibiotics meant to kill bacteria, though some bacteria have evolved various mechanisms to achieve antibiotic resistance. This list can go on, but the unique abilities for the rest of the pathogens are all well thought through by the game developers and rooted in real-world pathogen mechanics.
Most major outbreaks that our world has seen so far have not had more than 2 modes of transmission. The Black Death, or bubonic plague, was spread by infected fleas on small animals, or contact with bodily fluids of an infected organism. COVID-19 – need I say more? Currently, it is known to spread through respiratory droplets, and it seems that the virus can remain viable on surfaces for more than a day. These outbreaks are contagious enough with just those few modes of transmission, can you imagine if it was just like in the game where you could technically evolve all modes of transmission?
The response from the countries as your game progresses pretty much mirrors the logical response – as the infection spreads, borders start shutting down. At this point, you may remember that around the time that the COVID-19 outbreak was heating up, a meme on moving to Greenland surfaced. For those in the know, Greenland is one of the notoriously hard-to-infect countries in the game, as it only has one point of entry and exit: a seaport. Hence if Greenland were to shut its only border, there go your chances of winning the game. Of course, in reality this is untrue as Greenland has more than just seaports. Still, it was a light-hearted way that the gamer community communicated the severity of the pandemic.
During this period where we are practising the “circuit breaker” to reduce community transmission, this would be an excellent game to pass the time. Not just that, it may serve to help us to reflect on what we, as individuals, could possibly have done to make the situation better; either by practising good personal hygiene or social distancing. So if there’s just one game you want to pick up this month, I would recommend this; you can even try your hand at being a fictional zombie outbreak!
Is there a Science?
Playing a game and reviewing it, all in the name of Science, why not?
Written by Ng Mei Bao
Illustration by Eric Lua
Screenshots from Plague Inc: Evolved