Originally published on Steam

I started playing Plague Inc: Evolved again after COVID-19 arrived in my city. The conceit is you are a pathogen intent on wiping out humanity. So, it's on the morbid side, which may or may not be what you want in the middle of a pandemic. (It was for me, but I'm not necessarily typical.) I've wiped out humanity as a bacteria, a virus and a fungus. There are many other variations, including horror and a "fake news" scenarios, created by the developer. Included is a scenario creator which allows anyone with the game to create and publish their own versions. Not surprisingly, there are several COVID-19/coronavirus scenarios to play with.

There are two different ways to think about Plague Inc.: as a game and as a simulation. The game play mechanics are simple: collect DNA points and spend them to evolve your pathogen. Evolutions can occur in transmission, symptoms and abilities. The basic strategy is to start increasing transmission until everyone is infected and then start increasing symptoms until everyone dies. Abilities can be added to slow research into a cure or help your pathogen survive various environments. Most of the game can be played by waiting, so there's also a bubble popping mechanic that provides more DNA points randomly or when a new country is infected. So it starts to feel like a clicker game with end-states. The various pathogen differences feel more like window dressing than real game play variations. So the game isn't really all that good.

As a simulation, it's not terribly deep. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe there's depth that isn't visible to the player. As far as I can tell, there are a handful of variables the evolutions control and those determine how the pathogen is transmitted, what symptoms patients might come down with, how deadly the disease is and how quickly a cure can be found. It clearly tracks ports and boarder which can be closed down. And every country/region has it's own set of variables. So it has a vernier of simulation.

Unfortunately, the simulation doesn't track well with how pandemics are actually modeled. Take for instance this article about COVID-19 [medium.com]

. It uses more complex model that includes transmission rates, incubation period, infectious days, fatality rates, etc. It also considers the possibility of collateral damage that occurs when the health system is overtaxed. Plague Inc. doesn't consider how prepared a country would be to implement strict quarantine procedures or whether it might be unprepared to test for the disease. As it turns out, these factors play a large part in determining how well a country does in a pandemic.

But the larger problem is that the game aspect of Plague Inc. interferes with the simulation aspect. A pandemic might conceivably destroy civilization, but it won't have the advantage of being controlled by an intelligence that can adjust the lethality of the pathogen. The mutations that might occur will not be the simple toggles made necessary to play the game nor can they be reverted as a part of a larger strategy.

Still, the two parts together are morbidly fascinating. The "what if" aspect of the game is quite strong even if the game play and simulation are weak. I've certainly been captivated by it the times I've played. But there's never quite been enough to propel to the next pathogen I unlock. Instead, I just feel like uninstalling the game and contemplating the fleetingness of life after I've masterminded the death of humanity.