Biodefense in Gaming: Enjoyable but Inaccurate

By Greg Witt

With pathogens like Zika, Ebola, and West Nile now household names, biodefense has rarely been more culturally relevant. One needs look no further for proof than the sudden proliferation of TV shows and movies taking on these themes, including The Last Ship, Containment, and Helix. Depictions of biodefense topics in popular culture are not limited to traditional media, though; numerous video games and board games have been released in the past few years in which biodefense plays an important role. Here are a few of the more notable games:

Dead Island: This 2011 video game involves a genetically-modified version of kuru that is transmissible by blood and turns people into zombies. The disease is released by a shadowy corporation as a biological weapons test on some fictional islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. With respect to scientific accuracy, the developers make a number of major errors; for example, they repeatedly refer to kuru as a virus when it is actually a neurodegenerative condition caused by a prion. Such creative liberties are understandable considering that a disease with an incubation period of 10+ years would make for a rather boring game. In the end, these epidemiological details are merely window dressing intended to give the game a pseudoscientific backstory in the name of narrative expediency and exciting gameplay.

Tom Clancy’s The Division: In the world of biodefense, few pathogens are as feared as variola, and rightly so. Playing on this concern, The Division follows government agents attempting to restore order in New York City as society collapses in the aftermath of a smallpox attack in the heart of Manhattan. While the specifics of the disease and the outbreak are largely glossed over, the game’s depiction of the aftermath of such an epidemic is eerily plausible, including misdiagnosis of the initial infections, exponential spread of the virus, and the collapse of the public health system under the unprecedented strain of massive casualties. The premise for the story is almost identical to Operation Dark Winter, a simulation conducted in 2001 to analyze US government preparedness for a hypothetical smallpox attack. Ultimately, the variola outbreak is just a plot device to set the stage for a post-apocalyptic shooter, but the game does succeed in bringing some long-overdue attention to the potential threats posed by biological terrorism and the genetic engineering of pathogens.

Plague Inc.: This strategy game presents a twist on biodefense, as players take on the role of a pathogen, starting as a bacteria, virus, or parasite, and attempt to eliminate humanity. As time passes and more people are infected, the disease can be upgraded by adding new symptoms (such as coughing, pulmonary edema, or kidney failure) and modes of transmission (such as airborne or vector-borne). Humanity does not go gentle into that good night, however, and fights back by trying to develop a cure and by taking interim measures like the closure of land borders and airports. For a free smartphone app, it actually provides a surprisingly accurate and comprehensive simulation of a pandemic. For example, players must balance transmissibility, infectivity, and lethality in order to maximize the spread of their pathogen.

Pandemic: If you prefer saving the world to destroying it, the cooperative board game Pandemic offers you and 1 to 3 companions the chance to work together to save the human race from not one, but four different virulent and highly contagious pathogens. The game starts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta as biodefense experts and medical personnel scramble around the world in an attempt to contain major outbreaks and ultimately discover and disseminate a cure for each illness. Taking on such roles as “Quarantine Specialist” and “Epidemiologist”, players must contend with scarce resources and the frustration of always having to play catch-up to a constantly morphing and unpredictable threat, a feeling that real biodefense experts know all too well. While never delving too deeply into the specifics of the pathogens or the actual science behind epidemic response, Pandemic provides invaluable insight into the world of those working every day to keep our society safe from biological threats.

When judging the accuracy of these games, a noticeable pattern begins to emerge. Action and shooting games tend to gloss over the epidemiological details and use biological agents and epidemics as merely a plot device or a token justification for the setting. Since these titles are usually focused on fast-paced action and interpersonal relationships, it is understandable that the developers would take poetic license with their depictions of pathogens and epidemics. Strategy games, on the other hand, tend to explore the complexities of pandemic response and provide the player with much better insight into the worlds of epidemiology and biodefense. Other than biological inaccuracies, the most glaring flaw in the depiction of epidemics in gaming is the assumption that some omnipotent intergovernmental organization can take all steps necessary to contain and cure the outbreak. In reality, it could be argued that the greatest challenge is presented not by the contagion itself, but by the inability of different stakeholders to cooperate, in addition to the obviously extreme differences in response infrastructure.

One crucial commonality between all four games is the depiction of virulent and contagious pathogens as existential threats that must be confronted sooner rather than later. So while the actual science and politics on display can often be questionable, these games are an invaluable tool for bringing biodefense to the attention of the general public. And of course it doesn’t hurt if we get to play some enjoyable games along the way!



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