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Move over Contagion. Board and video games on virus apocalypse are the new obsession

Games in which players are pathogens out to destroy humanity or healthcare workers battling an outbreak, are all the rage during the coronavirus lockdown.

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Since the post World War II era, scholars have debated whether the popular nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ is actually about the Great Plague. Whether it is or not, it does feels creepily apt when sung in the haunting voice of the young girl in Plague Inc, a video game that’s taken the locked down, self-quarantined world by storm.

Using incredibly realistic simulations, the strategy-based game, which was first released in 2012, has you, the player, taking on the role of a pathogen which infected Patient Zero and must now evolve to create a pandemic to annihilate humanity.

However, after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO, the game developer, UK-based Ndemic Creations, said a new version will be available in which players can save the world instead of destroy it after gamers asked for the variation.

Plague Inc. has been in the market for nearly a decade and is available on Windows, iOS and Android. Yet, the game’s popularity spiked late January this year as it became the most downloaded game in China, the first country to be hit with the Covid-19 infection. In February, the Chinese government banned the game for “illegal content“.

Plague Inc also saw a 123% spike in sales and 207.1% spike in revenue growth in the first quarter of the year, compared with the corresponding period in 2019.

It’s not the only contagion-based game having a moment. Pandemic, which came out in 2008, is a cooperative board game in which up to four people play healthcare workers — doctors, researchers and quarantine experts — whose goal is to prevent a disease from spreading. Both this and Viral, a 2017 board game, are selling out in various parts of the world. Viral has each player playing a virus which must decide what part of the human body to infect. The game includes mutation cards and zone cards that help a player decide what form each virus will take and what body part it attacks.

Right now, as much of India stays indoors due to the lockdown and people discover new ways to spend their time, week after week, the near-prophetic nature of these games and the eerie similarity with reality make them strangely addictive.

Also read: Life beyond Netflix — this is how urban India is keeping itself entertained at home

Strange but useful way to learn how viruses works

Whether you’re playing a disease-causing virus or a healthcare worker, these games, on a very basic level, are an entertaining way to learn about how diseases spread. The mutation of a virus, how it reacts to certain stimuli, how public health systems function and crumble — all of these are gamified to a very realistic degree.

Zeenat Khakerwala, a research fellow at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, says these games help one make sense of the “genetic hardening” of a pathogen.

“You devise several strategies to increase the transmission rate and severity of the virus. It helps people understand how these microscopic changes take place and just how life-altering they can be,” she says. In Plague, for example, players have to strategise how they want the virus to mutate and transmit while increasing its severity.

Such is the degree of research behind these games that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US invited Ndemic Creations’ founder and CEO James Vaughan to discuss how the game could be used to address public health issues. In an interview, Vaughan also noted how teachers reached out to him in order to use the game as an educational tool.

Take Cytosis, for example. The board game helps you understand how the human body fights an attack by a pathogen, with each ‘worker’ defending different body parts using resources such as enzymes and hormones to build immunity.

Also read: Bollywood is staring at ‘Rs 1,000-crore loss’ or more if 21-day lockdown is extended

Seeing the bigger picture

These games don’t focus on just the science of an outbreak, but also the role of political leaders and the media in a pandemic. In a December 2019 update, Plague Inc. gave the virus power to spread fake news in order to create panic and social unrest, allowing players to watch the consequences of fake news, giving them a unique first-hand experience.

According to Ronak Chitalia, board game designer and owner of Mumbai’s Chai and Games: The Board Game Café, a game like Pandemic can help people understand just how important it is to cooperate in order to contain the spread of the virus.

“All players are dependent on each other in a bid to beat the plague in the game, highlighting how one mistake, one oversight can result in the virus spilling over into the world,” he says while observing the relevance of the game in these times and how aware it makes an individual of their own role and responsibility in a real-life pandemic.

Plague Inc. too recently came out with an update in which, “as a human, you can cause lockdowns, fund research, put people in quarantine,” says Mollika Maiti, associate editor at Cactus Communications, a global scientific communications community.

Of course, the science of these games is not meant to be taken as hard fact. They do skew some facts in order to make gameplay interesting. “In Plague Inc., the virus mutates very rapidly and all over the world at once … this is scientifically incorrect,” Maiti says.

Nevertheless, there are humbling takeaways from these games. “In Pandemic, the game can beat you in three ways while you have only one way to win,” says Chitalia.

Also read: DD gets back viewers with Ramayan, Shaktimaan, Byomkesh Bakshi. It’s most watched channel now

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