New York now has 33 documented cases of the novel coronavirus, and I’m coping with the news by exterminating humanity over and over again. While others are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak by unnecessarily stocking up on water or hoarding masks, I’ve been playing Plague Inc., a real-time strategy game where the player designs the perfect disease to wipe out the human race. For years, Plague Inc. was a mindless, lighthearted distraction. In the past few weeks, it’s become therapeutic.
In Plague Inc., which was first released in 2012 as a mobile app, you deliberately spread an illness to try to destroy the global population before they can discover a cure. You start by choosing a plague type—like bacteria, virus, fungus, or bioweapon—and a country of origin, and then the race begins. As you oversee the spread of your disease over land and sea, you earn points to spend on power-ups that affect the growth, infection rate, and severity of the pathogen. The trick is to use those power-ups to ensure maximum infectivity while keeping your plague under the world’s radar long enough so that much of the population is infected before you bring out the most lethal attributes: dysentery, necrosis, and total organ failure. That means making sure you’ve hit the tough-to-reach countries like Greenland and Madagascar, which are only accessible by sea, before unleashing Armageddon.
On the surface it certainly appears morbid, calculating the most efficient ways to kill billions of people for fun, especially now. Maybe that’s why Chinese officials removed the game from the app store. I get it: Infectious diseases are scary. When I was in high school, I was so obsessed with The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s book about deadly viruses, that my parents became concerned that I saw Ebola around every corner. When I was in college, the campus was gripped by swine flu panic. But as the world grows increasingly anxious about another new disease, playing through a session of Plague Inc. feels a lot like enjoying an episode of My Favorite Murder, taking my looming fear and transforming it into something confrontable and controllable.
It’s also informative. Though Plague Inc. creator Ndemic Creations has cautioned users against using the game to model the spread of the coronavirus, it does make me think about how we interact with viruses and what sorts of measures are in place to keep us safe. When special events like the Festival of Love pop up where everybody starts kissing, it’s a reminder of all the dumb ways we unconsciously pass sicknesses around. The effectiveness of coughing and sneezing in increasing infectivity is a reminder to wash your hands and clean your phone. The addition of anti-vaxxers to the game shows how misinformation can endanger us all.
It’s always invigorating to win at Plague Inc., watching the population tick down to zero—but failure is the most thrilling outcome of all. Each time the computer beats me, I’m reminded of the ways humanity can survive a biological apocalypse. There are some very grim realities I’m forced to confront while playing, like the fact that “rich” countries are so much harder to infect than “poor” ones, but these are the truths we have to deal with every time a real medical epidemic arises. Playing Plague Inc. lets me confront those realities in a safe way.
There are now several Plague Inc. scenarios available that aren’t sickness-related, including one that lets you design and sell your own board game—to celebrate the launch of the Plague Inc. board game—and another in which you spread a different kind of disease: fake news. Still, I like to play the original, pandemic-themed game as a reminder that if things really do get bad, there’s always Greenland.
This piece has been updated with the latest known number of coronavirus cases in New York.