Since its first launch for iPhone in 2012, the world has had a morbid fascination with Plague Inc. The game places you in control of a global pandemic—as an individual bacteria or virus—and you tweak its characteristics to make it as virulent and as deadly as possible. Over a simulation of days, months, and years, you watch it spread across a global map in an attempt to destroy all of humanity.
The game has been downloaded 85 million times and regularly tops the App Store charts, particularly during public health outbreaks like Ebola in 2014. And as dark and unabashedly profiteering the game is (you can pay to unlock new powers for your pathogen), the CDC has praised it, saying it drives awareness of pandemics. Anecdotally, I have to agree. What I learned playing Plague Inc. did set the groundwork for understanding COVID-19, from its links to animals, to its airborne transmission, to its ability to spread via planes, to its survivability in different climates, to its exponential spread, to its unrelenting goal to infect as many humans as possible.
Now, after nearly a year of work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Plague Inc. team, Ndemic Creations, has released a new mode that changes the game completely. Instead of playing as a rogue pathogen, you attempt to create a cure. You’re essentially the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but with more power. You can hire advisers, invest in production of personal protective equipment (PPE), expand testing, conduct contact tracing, build triage hospitals, run ad campaigns to promote hand washing, and mandate social distancing. You can even run propaganda campaigns, assuring the world that everything is just fine, even as tens of millions are infected.
I hate to admit that I’m pretty good at Plague Inc., having beaten the game countless times when I played it years ago. I assumed that covering COVID-19 so much this year would make me pretty good at curing a pandemic, too. However, when I load the new “Cure” mode, I’m completely lost, then overwhelmed.
The first thing I notice is that the new game mode makes me feel different from the old one. While it’s the same map as always, watching the virus spread fills me with a deep, existential concern instead of gamified glee. And only having policy to fall back to seems so futile in response to these red dots that are quickly multiplying and spreading via planes and boats.
My first round doesn’t last long. I spend all of my early resources on vaccine research, at the expense of distributing PPE and promoting social distancing. I figure I can get ahead of infections by going all out on a cure. But as the pandemic spreads out of control, I realize the dark irony of my error. I’d unconsciously tried the same tactic as the Trump administration, attempting to Operation Warp Speed the pandemic.
With hundreds of millions infected, it’s too late to pass out hand sanitizer. So I use my authority to close down the world a continent at a time, which slows things for a bit, until society revolts. I don’t have the resources to pay people who are forced to stay home from their jobs—a real option the game offers. Again, this sounds eerily familiar to the way our own country is bumbling COVID-19, by not providing incomes for people to quarantine.
The second time around, I try a more balanced approach. I invest in low-cost ad campaigns and distribute PPE. I get agents on the ground and implement contact tracing early. I find time to invest in vaccine research along the way. But then I realize I’ve forgotten about the hospital infrastructure. While the pathogen hasn’t taken over the globe, it has destroyed some countries, like Turkey, where people begin to die.
As I invest in hospitals, I’m alerted that while a vaccine is nearly ready, it will be delayed because I haven’t coordinated distribution. I do successfully deploy a vaccine eventually, and the world is cured. I have a quick celebration before seeing the stats. I still lost 15 million people over the course of a year.
The game’s original mode was dark, addictive fun. The Cure mode is decidedly less so. My chest is still tight with lingering anxiety. It’s triggering. It’s also a slog. In the original mode, you can mutate your virus and watch it spread with the unrelenting power of biology. You feel a sense of improvement, building upon every new mutation you add. In the Cure mode, you have to constantly reinvest and reallocate resources while battling logistics and bureaucracy. It can feel far more like a zero-sum operation.
I wouldn’t call the Cure mode fun, to be honest. Instead, the entire gameplay treatment is both smart and apt. But there is one core lie at the heart of this new Cure mode: that our resources to stop COVID-19 are inherently limited. In fact, President Trump could have spent the past year tapping our industries to produce more PPE and tests. The Senate could have supported a second stimulus to keep sick workers home. The president could have promoted the best knowledge of scientists rather than playing down the deadly virility of COVID-19.
Plague Inc. gives me a new appreciation for the work of our health officials who are trying to contain the pandemic, but it fuels my anger at the GOP for blocking a proper COVID-19 response, and turning human survival into a partisan issue. And I hope that some of the 85 million people who’ve downloaded Plague Inc. so far can extract this same truth. We now know that we will cure COVID-19, but we’ve lost way more lives than we’ve needed to along the way.