I discovered Plague Inc. while interning at Games for Change. I downloaded it to my phone, created my bacteria “H1N10” (the bigger the number the more deadly right?), and cleverly guided it through its genetic mutations while it infected and killed millions worldwide. I didn’t kill everyone in the world however, and started over. This time I named my deadly little bacteria Loki, after the mischievous Norse figure. Loki proved much more successful at infecting and killing billions of people, but I still hadn’t conquered the human race. It was extremely satisfying to name and then guide a bacteria to eventual murdering maturity. I was devious in my tinkering of its traits. I wanted widespread infection and transmission, yet I couldn’t let it spread so fast that it was noticed by the WHO. It also couldn’t be so deadly that it was immediately noticed by local government officials, but would need to be a juggernaut of strife and lay waste to entire countries before they could mount a defense and create a cure once it was inevitably noticed. This game satiated my love of strategy and biology while letting me play God (or is it Satan in this case?) and kill off the human race. What more could one ask for in a game where you strategically engineer a pathogen to kill not an opposing team, but an entire species through carefully chosen adaptations?
It was fun to become skilled at engineering deadly viruses that skirted the WHO’s attention long enough to devastate the world population. Recently however, the same in-game warning signs which once alerted me to my bio-genocide being slowed down have alerted me to the serious potential threat of Ebola. When a lethal disease emerges in the real world that has the potential to wipe out a great number of people, I begin to wonder if playing and enjoying Plague Inc. is wrong.
When news of Ebola began making rounds across ever major news source, as well as the WHO’s watch list, I was concerned. Not only had this disease been noticed and called a serious threat by the World Health Organization and the American Government, but these same warning signs were the very same which I recognized within Plague Inc. When the pesky WHO recognized my disease as a worldwide risk, that’s when countries began creating a cure to whatever monstrosity I had tapped into existence. I knew that if the WHO was watching Ebola, along with every major news outlet (in addition to Tumblr), then it was a pretty serious health threat. I haven’t played Plague Inc. in some time, but it sits there in my app drawer because I know I enjoyed it and want to again. It’s a really fun game, something that drained my battery on a daily basis. I scroll past it every now and then and think I should be playing it again. Yet I don’t know that I feel comfortable with playing Plague Inc. anymore. The parallels between the world bowing to my carefully adapted and evolved pathogen and the Ebola nightmare currently gripping the world are a little too much and scare me.
This type of moral quandary is usually reserved for most war-themed first-person shooters. We sometimes question the effects and moral implications of partaking in the shooting and murdering of other human beings depicted in the multi-billion dollar Call of Duty/Battlefield/[Insert other mainstream military shooter] franchises so often purchased and played. Why are these franchises questioned much more over others? And why are games such a cause for concern in the first place when it comes to violent entertainment? Violently killing other humans in (ever-increasingly) realistic shooters with real military weapons and gear is a disturbing thought. The appetite and enthusiasm for these titles is especially voracious. Many a study and news piece has centered on trying to link interactive media and real-world violence (with no conclusive evidence that I’ve ever heard). A large number of people are enamored with shooting and killing others in a digital world. It is disconcerting to say the least that people play these games without thinking about what they’re actually doing or thinking that killing other human beings is “cool” and “fun”. I’m not saying that military first-person shooters make people into conditioned cold-hearted killing machines. Obviously however, people love military shooters. Furthermore (to answer the second question), video games are such a concern when it comes to violent entertainment because of their unique nature. Video games are a unique medium in which the player “consuming” the entertainment is also the agent. You can watch movies like Kill Bill and Terminator but the audience member isn’t the one swinging the katana or pulling the trigger. You are watching someone else take these actions and can feel repulsion or joy or anger from it, but ultimately you didn’t play any agency in the death of a weapon-wielding schoolgirl. When reading a book, once again the reader is experiencing the world which the author has set forth. The reader uses their imagination to envision the characters, setting, and plot of the novel. When it comes to Mario or Master Chief however the game player is enacting agency — through through these characters — over the events of the game. The story cannot progress without input from the player, and sometimes even the narrative and ending are determined by the players’ choices within a game. It is the combination of this agency—the player experiencing this form of entertainment in the form of pulling a trigger, swinging a sword, or jumping on a creatures head through the press of a button—and violent sub-genres of the medium that create cause for concern for most unfamiliar with video games. The ability to have the agency to kill others in a realistic-fictional world is what causes concern over the interactive-entertainment medium. Where do we draw the line between desensitized and rewarded killing online and training and rewarding young men and women to kill others in various war campaigns across the globe? It is this line, or something close to this line, which gives me pause in playing Plague Inc. and enjoying it so much.
While I find satisfaction and enjoyment in killing hundreds of on-screen enemies (often in a hail of bullets) I could never imagine myself firing a gun, much less at another human being (or any living creature for that matter). Playing Call of Duty used to somewhat cause me to pause and reflect on my actions within the game and real-world conflicts around the world. Those tense war-torn battlefields are real for some out there; and not just soldiers but innocent bystanders/civilians in ideologically or politically divided regions. War is real, and real people suffer around the world from its intentional and unintentional effects. The same goes for Plague Inc. In this game your goal is to kill as many humans as possible, ideally the entire human race. You direct your pathogen in its mutations to become more infectious and/or more deadly. The world reacts realistically: closing borders, shutting down airports, pooling resources and flying scientists between countries to work on a cure. Progress of your pathogen is indicated by the scrolling news headlines across the top of the screen which inform you when the WHO has noticed your disease, ports have closed, or governments have collapsed due to mass panic and hysteria. The entire time you cheer on your little bacteria or virus-that-could in the hopes that it will infect and kill more people. The symptoms and potential mutations of your killer bacteria are real, and so are the people suffering across West Africa. The distinction between reality and this little game on my phone are obvious, yet playing it gives me pause. While I sit relatively safe in the U.S. playing this game there are individuals living in terror of contracting Ebola with little to no hope of proper medical care. I can’t help but feel that playing with similar deadly and unpredictable diseases feels somehow callous.
Then I wonder if I’m thinking too much. Plague Inc. is just a simple game which actually helps spread the knowledge of disease transmission and mutation in a fun and engaging medium. Perhaps I have taken this too far, but it’s important to analyze what we play every now and then (right?). Ultimately I don’t think Plague Inc. is as shallow as some FPS’ out there, and in fact helped me recognize Ebola as a serious potential threat to the world. However it is a good idea to recognize reality that people out in other parts of the world have to deal with the threats we think of as fun on a daily basis.