By no means am I a master, but on my 23rd try, I created the perfect conditions to eradicate the human race. First I zombified humans; another time, apes contracted the simian flu and gained self-awareness. Then brain-controlling worms tunneled through the skull of every human on Earth. On the 23rd attempt, I went old school with a simple germ. I even gave this ultimate pathogen a name. I named it “Bob.”
As Bob spread from person to person, red dots cropped up all over the world map. Bob evolved and latched onto the backs of livestock and rodents. Soon, Bob infected humans and traveled by water and air and by the time scientists created a cure, drugs no longer broke Bob down. Cities fell, continents crumbled, and the death toll reached the billions. All thanks to a pathogen named Bob, a banner reads, “The last few humans know they are watching the end of history.”
I was surprised I got this far because I don’t play video games. The only fitting comparison I found to Plague Inc. was the strategy board game Risk, which always ends with me flipping the board in protest.
I’m more than a little late to the Plague Inc. community. The multiplatform pandemic simulator has been around since 2012 and has 100 million players worldwide. But toward the end of February 2019, Eduard Garbrian, a fellow pandemic-starter, brought the game back into the news cycle. He created a petition using Change.org calling for the creators of Plague Inc., Ndemic Creations, to add anti-vaxxers to spread disease. The petition’s description spoke for itself: “Anti-vaxxers are stupid.”
Although the petition description reads like a joke, Ndemic Creations answered the call via tweet on Feb. 25, saying if the petition received 10,000 signatures, they’d “add a new anti-vaxxer scenario” within the game. The next day, the petition reached 11,000 signatures. Ndemic Creations posted on its blog that they’d uphold their end of the bargain. As of March 18, the total number of signatures is about 1,500 shy of its 25,000 goal.
The blog post thanked those who signed the petition for “sticking up for science” and addressed the rising trend of previously quenched diseases making steady comebacks, thanks in many cases to those who willingly decline immunization. They do so under the assumption of medical misinformation, politics, and religious beliefs. But “anti-vaxxer” is most commonly associated with parents who don’t vaccinate their children out of the fear that vaccines will give their children autism or another illness. Despite studies finding no links between autism and measles, mumps, and rubella immunizations, the medical myth persists, and preventable diseases claim the lives of those who cannot yet make medical decisions for themselves or those with compromised immune systems. In 2018, Europe saw 82,596 measles cases that resulted in the death of 72 children.
In the trailer for Plague Inc., a scientist starving for a cure narrates how the pathogen made 7 billion people move into labs. How he remained hopeful until the moment he coughed. As he died, he thought of life before the pathogen. “Even then, we didn’t take it very seriously,” he said.
In the same way a sad joke often speaks to the truth, the biggest challenge that Plague Inc.’s development team will face is giving its in-game anti-vaxxer will appropriate weight. “We’re currently working out how Anti-Vaxxers will actually work in the game,” James Vaughan, designer Plague Inc., told me in an email. If the people living in the global pandemic’s simulation still rejected vaccinations, despite the apocalypse, the plague would develop too quickly for players to enjoy the strategy-based play that Plague Inc. is known for. In other words, with the addition of anti-vaxxers, Plague Inc. “would be a very easy game to win,” as Vaughan put it. That’s how much power anti-vaxxers hold in a video game simulating the end of the world by plague, pestilence, and germy conquest. That’s how much of a threat anti-vaxxers pose to the population with compromised immune systems, those who are vaccinated, and everyone else. That’s how medical myths displace the medical realities around immunizations of preventable diseases. Exacerbated by the climate of science-denial, anti-vaxxers circulate a new “fact-resistant world.”
The world of medical misinformation runs adjacent to our own, and when that world floods Facebook, Pinterest, etc., social media platforms deploy extremes to cauterize anti-vaccination campaigns and false advertisings illustrating the dangers of vaccination.
Through the upcoming edition of Plague Inc., Ndemic Creations carries on the conversation and portrays a glimpse into a hypothetical reality of a population brought closer and closer to zero, antivaxxers brought closer and closer to the pathogen they catalyzed, and a society brought closer and closer to Bob and whatever’s left.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.