British strategy game Plague Inc. is getting a renewed bout of attention as countries grapple with a deadly new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But both epidemiologists and the game’s developer say that the scenario portrayed in Plague Inc. is unlikely in the real world. 

In Plague Inc., a player has to craft the perfect virus to infect and kill everyone on the planet. After the outbreak of a very real virus in China in December, the game’s popularity soared in the country. Not only did the 8-year-old title become the most downloaded paid game on China’s iOS App Store last week, the PC version reached an all-time peak in concurrent players on Steam. 

But the game’s enormous following has also raised concerns. While game developer Ndemic put out a statement stressing that the game is “not a scientific model,” epidemiologists have also pointed out that the spread of a virus in the real world is more complicated than it appears in Plague Inc. 

Many players consider China a great place to start an epidemic in Plague Inc. (Picture: Ndemic)

A big reason for this is that game developers simply can’t take all factors into account, according to Kelvin Kam-fai Tsoi, an epidemiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“There are a lot of scenarios which are simply unimaginable,” Tsoi said. “For example, we don’t know how long the outbreak had laid dormant in Wuhan. Something like that could exponentially raise the infection percentage.”

He added, “Then we have the Spring Festival, during which people are traveling with the virus on them. Factors like this are not included in the game.”

Outside of the unknown factors, there are three major differences between the scenario in the game and the spread of a virus in real life. First, we don’t really know the speed at which a virus might travel. Second, eradication takes much longer after a cure or a vaccine is found. Third, border control is much harder to execute in real life.

Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist at University of California, Riverside, said Plague Inc. lets users decide on “the infectivity, severity, and lethality of the disease.” But in real life, “we are faced with these natural attributes of the disease without choosing them,” he said.

That’s why it’s hard to predict how fast a disease like coronavirus might spread, Brown said. Even though the majority of cases have been coming out of China, we’ll know more about the spread as data is available, he said.

Ndemic also said that the game simplified the process by which a virus is eradicated. “In terms of scientific accuracy, it's a pretty fine balance of science and 'fun' / good gameplay,” the developer posted on Steam. “For example - the cure being almost instantly available worldwide is an obvious simplification, just because it wouldn't be fun for the player to be in a drawn-out situation where [they] are almost certain to lose.” 

Rosalind Eggo of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine also pointed out that a border shutdown isn’t the effective quarantine measure it’s presented as in the game.

In a Let’s Play video with the Microbiology Society, Eggo said a border shutdown doesn’t work when it comes to an epidemic. In the video, Eggo played a demo game of Plague Inc. in which an outbreak originating in China barely reached Russia after a year, which Eggo said was unrealistic.

“Even if you close the border, there are always different routes people make around it,” Eggo said. The only places where a border shutdown could possibly work are islands where there are few ways in and out, she said. 

So even though Plague Inc. is helping spread awareness, don’t play it thinking you’re getting an accurate representation of how epidemics work. 

“The game has generated significant interest in this topic, which is great,” Brown said. “But the game should not be used to give people a sense that they can solve the current epidemic or find out how the novel coronavirus will spread across the globe.”

But Brown said that compared to the virus in Plague Inc., the mortality rate of the novel coronavirus “thankfully seems to be much lower.”