The Chinese government has removed the epidemic game Plague Inc. from all app Stores and from Steam. At the same time, the game is storming the app store charts outside the region. Here is what the controversial game is all about.
I have to admit that I am relatively unaffected by the Chinese government's attempt to keep its large population in line with bizarre internet censorship. I had to roll my eyes when I heard last week that one of my favorite strategy games on my smartphone, Plague Inc., was banned in China purely by its association with the coronavirus. Is this my western arrogance or are my doubts about the decision justified?
The Plague Inc. game that has been on my smartphone for about four years. I love the game so much that I can play it on Android even when I switch to a professional mobile phone and bought it in the Play Store. Plague Inc. is a simulation game based on very realistic scenarios. The goal of the game is simple, to wipe out humanity with viruses, bacteria, fungi, or other diseases. Different strategies more or less lead to success, because mankind reacts to the disease and tries everything to prevent the extermination and to produce a cure.
The game is played on a large map that outlines the earth and each country. Realistically, the countries have either airports or ports, in the best case both. Here I start in most cases with the spreading of my invented virus. Most of the time I use India as a starting point for the epidemic, because the more people get infected with 'my' disease, the more points pop up on my DNA account, which I can use to make numerous optimizations in the menu in my small perfidious smartphone lab. I can, for example, improve the resistance of the virus or bacterium to cold and heat, build up drug resistance or promote the spread by animals. A wide variety of symptoms can be developed in a separate area: from coughing and sleep disturbances, to insanity and total organ failure.
Eradicate humanity: why would you even want to play that?
A counterquestion: why is it satisfying to remove the ladder from the pool for a sim in the construction mode in the life simulation game The Sims? Right - out of curiosity and because it's a lot of fun. Fun, but not real. And even if Plague Inc. is dark in many places and criticized online because of the spread of the coronavirus, it remains a game that - by the way - has been around for over eight years. It was the Ebola epidemic that first helped the game developers at Ndemic Creations achieve new record user numbers for the free app (with in-app purchases) in 2014. Now, in 2020 and with the spread of the coronavirus, the gaming app is once again at the top of the app charts on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.
Should the developers be ashamed of this? I don't think so. Quite the opposite. The game makers have already done meticulous educational work when the infectious disease Ebola broke out, and have repeatedly called for donations for affected regions; according to their own statements, the company has also made donations. In total, $76,000 were raised by Plague Inc. players worldwide through the donation campaign. The outcry that the developers are enriching themselves from the suffering of the people probably comes from those people who buy and hoard toilet paper, noodles and disinfectants in masses, only to deal them out at horrendous prices in the case of a total collapse of the economy and society.
This is how realistic the scenarios are in Plague Inc.
Anyone who wants to join Plague Inc. in 2020 will first be overwhelmed by the possibilities. In addition to "classic" scenarios such as the spread of bacteria, viruses or fungi, players can now also wipe out humanity with bio-weapons, parasites, or real diseases such as swine flu. After the big fake news debate, this scenario where mankind is not extinguished is also a part of Plague Inc., but deceived down to the last earthling with perfidious means.
- Download Plague Inc. for iOS from the Apple App Store
- Download Plague Inc. for Android from the Google Play Store
Whoever has successfully completed the Bacteria mode in the difficulty level Normal or Hard, i.e. has killed all humans, can play the currently controversial Virus mode for free. The good thing is, as in real life, it is damn difficult to win as a virus against humanity. The virus mutates continuously; symptoms of illness are developed without the intentional use of points. But to avoid being discovered by doctors or researchers, these symptoms should be removed until even the last person is infected with the virus unnoticed. This again costs points.
Also, the news that is part of the game, commenting with a lot of wit and charm on the life of the population during the outbreak of the disease, is realistic. At the beginning, the headlines are full of news about new Pisa studies, Brexit, or developments at sports events. Recently, I became queasy when I realized that the headlines after the discovery of the virus are as realistic as the morning view on Google News: "China closes borders", "Thousands of people are infected", "The virus spreads rapidly", "More deaths than from SARS", "Mankind starts drug research". The game was not banned in China for nothing, because the spread of the virus, including reporting, is hyperrealistic. The game developers rely on statistics and evaluations from epidemiology, which makes the mobile game a realistic simulation - and an enemy of the state.
Why has China banned the app?
Officially, the Chinese government has removed Plague Inc. from local app stores and the Steam platform because it contains "illegal content". That the app is banned after eight years and without significant changes in the last weeks during a real epidemic is probably no coincidence. Meanwhile, the app's development studio has issued a statement stating that they are working on making the game accessible to Chinese citizens again. However, it is not known which "illegal content" is so critical that it leads to exclusion. At the same time, the company also announced that it was working with health organizations to help contain the coronavirus.
The fact is, China is down. The country has struggled with economic collapse in recent months, thousands are or were infected, hundreds have lost their lives due to the disease. The fact that the Chinese government has little sympathy for a mobile phone game that allows the population to play out the exact same scenario on the couch is just as understandable as the fact that we need such games to process real events. The gamification of catastrophes somehow makes us feel like we have a certain amount of control, even though this is absolutely not the case. Having fun playing games is a way to get rid of all the fear, panic and hysteria, to laugh about it, even if you don't feel like laughing. Yes, I roll my eyes at the Chinese government's decision, but I am also aware that we are far apart not only geographically, but also culturally.
The curiosity that has now demonstrably brought thousands of people worldwide to download Plague Inc. is, in my eyes, a sign that people want to deal with infectious diseases. And the feeling of having failed again to wipe out humanity by means of a virus, because research and government can protect us and are prepared, is so good that I love to fall asleep with it in these times.