Olympics Are a Superspreader Event in My Game

by Ryan


  • In the popular game Plague Inc. holding the Olympics during a disease outbreak is a great way to end humanity.
  • The situation in Tokyo is more nuanced than in the game, but it is still risky to hold the Olympics now, especially with the Delta variant. 
  • “Obviously, our game is just a game, but it still helps people realize the issues at stake,” developer James Vaughan said. 

When you are a virus, holding the Olympics during a deadly, global disease outbreak is a great way to destroy humanity and win the game.

At least, that’s how things work in Plague Inc., one of the most popular paid mobile games of all time, with millions of players around the world.

“In Plague Inc, the Olympics has the potential to be a superspreader event for a disease outbreak,” creator James Vaughan told Insider, ahead of the opening ceremony for the very real Tokyo Games on Friday, in Japan.

‘It’s hard to really grasp’ how an infectious disease spreads

Vaughan’s game, which was first released in 2012, pits players against humanity, challenging them to “bring about the end of human history,” as the Plague Inc. website explains it, by propelling a global outbreak, and “adapting against everything humanity can do to defend itself.”   

Plague Inc. has won praise from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its educational value.

During the pandemic, the game-developing team at Ndemic Creations partnered with the World Health Organization, and vaccine leader CEPI, to develop Plague Inc: The Cure, a reverse version of the original game, where players have to save humanity by controlling the outbreak and developing a vaccine — all before it’s too late.

“Intellectually, you can think you understand the concept of exponential growth when it comes to disease spread, but until you really see those numbers yourself, it’s hard to really grasp what it can mean,” Vaughan said. “That’s where games can be quite powerful: Helping people learn that stuff in a slightly more safe space.”

The Olympic feature is a “relatively small part of the game,” Vaughan says — simply “one event of many we model.” But it can have huge consequences. 

How the game matches up to real life

Not much can be done to mitigate the effects of the Olympics on a Plague Inc. game, other than closing down borders and stopping flights.

“Lots of precautions are now being taken in Japan to try and minimize the risks,” Vaughan said — something that’s not well mirrored in the game. “We take a more gamified approach, so it’s more obvious and easier to recognize.”

Outside of the game, in real life, Japan’s hospitals are already filling up, protests are accelerating, and less than a quarter of the country is fully vaccinated. 

Tokyo is also weathering its worst COVID-19 case rates since January. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, “if the increase rate rises further, in less than two weeks, we will face a critical situation with the number of infections far exceeding that of the third wave.”

On Friday, protesters marched through the streets toward Japan National Stadium ahead of the opening ceremony chanting “Go to hell, IOC!” 

Spectators have been barred from the stands this year because of the pandemic, but the International Olympics Committee makes most of its money by selling TV rights to the games, not physical tickets. The IOC continues to assert that the games, the most expensive Summer Olympics yet, are “safe and secure.” 

Vaughan said Plague Inc. players are wondering why more isn’t being done to avoid a real-life disaster.

 

“Obviously, our game is just a game, but it still helps people realize the issues at stake,” Vaughan said. “We’ve had huge numbers of players get in touch with us saying ‘Why are they even thinking of doing this? Why haven’t they played Plague Inc.?'”

 

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