People Are Sickening: The Bug’s Eye View of Pandemic Games

A new kind of mobile gaming has players worried about the flu. It’s not that gamers are worried about catching the flu—though maybe they should be, what with the rise of gaming on smartphones that have a tendency to move rapidly from bathroom floors to pockets to countertops. Nor are players concerned about preventing the spread of the infection. Rather, they are worried about the flu the way a mother worries about her child, or the way we all worry about our own lives: will the flu survive? Will it succeed? Will it propagate, will it spread across the world? If it does, will it be happy?

It’s a strange way to think about an entity that might not, in the strictest sense, be considered alive. It’s stranger still when applied to the flu and other pathogens, viral, fungal, or bacterial, things that thrive only by multiplying human suffering. But it’s precisely this mindset that emerges from playing Plague, Inc., a title that has remained in the top five strategy games—and top 50 games overall—on the iTunes app store since Ndemic Creations released the title this past spring. Plague, Inc. joins a small cluster of other experiments in what appears to be an emerging pandemic simulation genre. These titles ask players to take on the role of infectious diseases, evolving from a single starting point to tackle the task of spreading across the globe. The ultimate goal is a nothing less than the destruction of humanity itself.

If there seems to be something sick about games that embrace human extinction, that may be part of the point. After all, equating victory with human extinction is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the motivations of many of the most popular video games of all time. The typical shoot-’em-up, for example, has players gun down hundreds, even thousands of people as they advance from the title screen to the credits. Plague, Inc. takes the murderous motivation underlying so many popular games and pushes it to its logical conclusion. It encourages players to dream big, and stop at nothing short of the extirpation of the species they seem to enjoy injuring so much. Therein lies the brilliance, and also the most significant shortcoming, of this new gaggle of games, all of which employ the intricacies of the 21st century gaming interface in ways that draw attention to the strange social and political contours of contemporary gaming.

While the interface of Plague, Inc. resembles the (years older) Pandemic series to such an extent that some reviewers and fans are crying foul, it is Plague, Inc. that has already emerged as the apotheosis—at least for the time being—of this new variety of gaming, sometimes referred to as the pandemic simulator.

In the pandemic simulator, you don’t play as anyone. There’s no story about who you are, or why you might be attempting to destroy humanity. There’s no team of rogue scientists, no addle-minded anarchist revolution underway. The typical “skins” laid over gameplay in order to render it sensible—characters, narrative, motives, meaning—are kept to a minimum. You don’t even have an avatar representing yourself or the disease you are responsible for.

This stripped-down approach to gameplay extends to the graphic interface. The entire game takes place on a rudimentary Mercator map of the globe, where you select your country of origin and watch the days tick by. Tiny boats stream from seaports to their docking places in other countries, and tiny airplanes emerge in wave upon wave, shooting across continents. The player mostly watches, accumulating points at certain milestones in the progression of the infection, and cashing in those points through menu screens that allow the player to mutate the pathogen at will, exercising some control over the symptoms and vectors of infection.

The particular style of observation demanded by the game requires that you think of the world from radically new perspectives. It pushes players to consider human movements and demographics on a near epic scale, as its global map implies. This image evokes something like that “overview effect” said to be experienced by astronauts viewing Earth from space, suggesting a kind of sublime indifference to events the average person would invest with intense emotional and psychological salience.

At the same time, as you find yourself watching and waiting, wondering how long to remain patient before going lethal— calculating which symptoms will arouse the least suspicion among health organizations—humanity in the aggregate stops looking human at all. The boats wiggling their way from port to port, dribbling red blots of infection as they move, begin to resemble dozens of tiny dinoflagellates working their way through the water. Intercontinental airplanes launch with the speed and precision of Pilobolus spores. These, the only visible markers of human habitation in the game, take on all the slow fascination of microscopic observation, and mankind becomes the interesting, if insignificant, object of inquiry. The round rim of the map feels recognizable, uncanny: the world is your Petri dish.

It’s a beautiful inversion of the customary conventions of graphics-heavy game design, which privileges visuals based on the human sensory experience. It also perfectly fits the pathological perspective it asks gamers to adopt. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and to a pathogen, everything looks like a Petri dish. This clever and dizzying experiment in proportion undermines our typical approach to ourselves and to the globe, and it does so in a way that seems uniquely suited to the mobile gaming format. What a game like Plague, Inc. drives home is an aspect of strategy games we rarely consider.

Since video gaming went mainstream in the ’80s, the titles that have attracted the most attention from watchdog groups have been those that depict violence and desensitize viewers to it. Titles like Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Grand Theft Auto seem to be structured around sinister principles, encouraging gamers to engage in violent acts to get what they want, disregarding the sanctity of human life in the process. But when Plague, Inc. and other pandemic sims drive home the inhumane horror of gaming, the forms of play they implicate are not those games whose violence is decried by parents’ associations everywhere. Instead, they implicate the most innocuous games of all: strategy and simulation games.

Pandemic sims draw attention to the fact that the puzzles that structure strategy games may appear innocuous and intellectual, but in fact they are characterized by a total lack of perspective. They work by inciting people to engage in endless rounds of asocial, problem-solving logic that exists apart from any kind of human connection. Outside of gaming, no medium could come close to such amoral objectivity. No novel can even approach the world from such an angle; language itself is too human and too value-laden, the positions of the reader and writer too impregnated with the relationship of a listener to some socially significant speech. Sculpture, photography, and painting likewise exist within certain coded spaces, addressing their audience in contexts that point to themselves as artworks, authored objects with special interpersonal significance.

The modern video game is different. It lies outside the binding cultural relationships implied by the library or the museum. It can be played anywhere, and its developers rarely receive a name, much less a face. Beginning a game, one faces a set of rules, parameters, and problems, rather than a mediated relationship to a known artist, or a document of someone’s personal expression. At least violent games offer some vision of humanity, however self-interested or bleak. Plague, Inc. points up the fact that most strategy games are as free of personal perspective as any pandemic sim: there is no rhyme or reason behind Tetris, or even behind the computational logic of a round of Sudoku.

Problem solving is a remarkably impersonal task, and pandemic sims like Plague, Inc. highlight the inherent impersonality of logical processes, using it to radically reorient the game player. Suddenly, we become aware that the interface that makes any strategy game accessible is deeply revealing precisely because of its arbitrary nature. It’s just as fun, and just as meaningful, to strategize about the expansion of a civilization in a Sid Meier game as it is to eliminate all human life in a pandemic sim. Intelligence is disturbingly antisocial.

Engineering this insight into a game designed to be played on-the-go—one of Plague, Inc.‘s departures from the Pandemic series, which existed only in Flash format on a web portal until very recently—is especially insidious. In a world of global connectivity, cell phones and the social networks they create are often critiqued for their worryingly impersonal nature. Critics like Jaron Lanier have argued that the human hive mind enabled by total mobile connectivity is dangerously dehumanizing, as it encourages a mob-like mentality that undermines the unique value of the individual voice. To market an inhuman and inhumane game by means of the very platform accused of promoting inhumanity—to design a virus simulator that could go viral—functions as a fine metacommentary on our current cultural situation.

Still, with a few exceptions—including one game-winning message that alerts you that the few remaining people lie “dying in holes”, aware that they are witnessing the end of humankind—Plague, Inc. keeps the sociopathic Schadenfreude to a minimum. It walks the fine line between objectivity and objectification with unexpected grace. In fact, its apparently dehumanizing hive mind hides a surprisingly progressive side. As an onscreen ticker tallies human deaths, you find yourself anxiously concerned that the number is rising too slowly to offset the rapid research for a cure, and you are forced to actually experience the give-and-take nature of human life.

The player, in other words, is forced to occupy the perspective of an organism endangered by human flourishing. By “be[ing] the villain”—as a recent advertisement for the newly ported Pandemic 2.5 puts it—you accidentally think yourself into the position of a creature antagonized by human happiness. That’s easy enough if the creature is a cuddly panda, but to cause gamers visceral interest in the fate of a fictional pathogen marks quite a coup. It’s a stunning, and profoundly ecological, experience.

The game’s ecological importance stems from its suggestion that every victory for mankind may be a loss for some other creature in a zero-sum game of global domination. Some version of this notion—that the products of humankind’s global domination might not be worth their costs— has existed in Western thought in various forms for at least a century. By the first decade of the 20th century, Romantic anti-industrial and anti-capitalist attitudes had mingled with a new Darwinian awareness of the complexity and fragility of interactions between species, resulting in calls to curb or halt human expansion. Although such calls varied widely, ranging from the preservationist environmentalism of John Muir’s Sierra Club to the at times radically antihuman modernism of D. H. Lawrence, they shared a broad sense that human “progress” came at too great a cost to other creatures—or even to the planet as a whole—to continue unchecked.

Adherents to this view continue to grow.

The mainstreaming of conservationist principles has driven us to rethink both our consumption and our assumptions about other beings on the planet, but rarely to the extent implied by a game like Plague, Inc. It’s one thing to recycle; it’s another to sweat silently over the sheer number of digits denoting healthy humans living on this planet. We may never know precisely what it feels like to have our species’ very existence threatened by the encroachment of an alien kind, but the player of the pandemic sim experiences the strain that human life imposes on other creatures in the form of unselfconscious anxiety. The game play renders emotionally real what is perhaps the most famous (and famously controversial) dictum of the Deep Ecology movement: the insistence that “the flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population… [and t]he flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.”

It’s one thing to think, believe, or consider such a thing. It’s quite another to feel it. The pandemic sim is an intriguing experiment for the way it asks us to do so. Nevertheless, while Plague, Inc. works wonders with the particular strengths and weaknesses of its gaming platform, it suffers from the simplifications that dog many game interfaces. By turning the world into an antagonistic face-off between pathogens and people, it misrepresents the interests of both. Humans do not gain, in the long run, from unchecked population increases, and neither do pathogens. Global domination turned upside-down is still vulnerable to an imperialist mindset, and the developers of the game seem blind to the fact that any human pathogen that eliminated people would be committing its own form of ecological suicide.

Outside of humans and their apparent enemies, the world of the pandemic sim is unrealistically empty. Players of Plague, Inc. can theoretically infect livestock, birds, rodents, and insects, but only as modes of infecting more humans. By reducing these creatures to mere modes of transmission for human infection, the game fails to understand what makes biological life tick, or the conditions required for its continuance.

In pushing the logic of so many video games—with their insistent focus on death and domination—to its absurdist conclusion, then, the pandemic sim creates a marvelous kind of satire with ecological undertones. It makes us think twice about the kinds of games we play, and about the surprisingly asocial nature of the intelligence required to win even—or especially—the most innocuous of them. It turns the perspectiveless nature of modern gameplay in newly productive directions, asking us to experience the world as the so-called villains do. But in the end it’s still a primitive kind of game, one in which someone needs to win and someone needs to lose.

By maintaining this simplistic division of the world into heroes and villains, the pandemic simulator remains tied to the misrepresentations of life that drive so much of gaming, and so much of the worldview that games represent and promote. It cannot think beyond winning as domination, and that domination—in a networked, ecological world—still looks like a lot like loss. Then again, if the developers of Plague, Inc. cannot come up with a convincing way of winning with the worldview we have created, perhaps that, too, is only appropriate.

J. M. Miller is a doctoral candidate in English literature. His cultural criticism has appeared in ART PAPERS, Under/Current, and Afterimage. He likes people—up to a point—but he prefers nonhuman interest stories.