At some point last week my husband Tim downloaded a new game to his phone: Plague.Inc from Ndemic. He loved it, said I might I like it. I liked it. I’ll tell you about it  …

You choose how you’d like to wipe out humanity. At first it’s just bacteria, but as you gain DNA points you get more options.

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select plague type

You name your chosen killer disease, pick the part of the world to infect first, and off you go.

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infect a country

Gradually you can choose different transmission types – fancy a bird flu? insects? or just airborne? I’ve got the most experience on bacteria so I’ll focus on that. You optimise it for different climates. The trick is to keep the symptoms low key so that the health authorities don’t notice. Then as you infect the world, and they start to notice, you spend your DNA points on building antibiotic resistance and other cunning tactics to avoid them curing you. When you’re ready, you let the symptoms build up into horrible nasty medical conditions and ultimately death. It’s you against humanity. And it is BRILLIANT! And every type of disease needs different tactics and game arcs, so it builds and builds.

The intriguing thing to me is the story behind it. Apparently the creator, James Vaughan, had never made a game before. But he had the idea, got himself £5,000 in cash, an old mac and a couple of programmers working with him (for free, I think), and off they went. He was inspired by pandemic, which I haven’t played. 3 days after launch it was a top download on IoS. The game is now a massive hit on IoS and android markets. He didn’t even spend money on marketing, it spread by recommendation. A viral viral game.

There’s a long interview with him on the Ed Tech Crew website but that was before he’d even released to android. I’d been thinking he must be an epidemiologist or virologist, but I know now he’s a management consultant. And he’s not himself a programmer, he designed the game structure, then he found the people to make it happen: programming (Mario), graphics, sound. In his job “I didn’t really make solid things, I gave advice to other people”: here’s a story of an advisor becoming a maker. It took a long time to find the right people, they worked remotely, without ever having met face to face. As he put it himself, its a “story about globalisation and the power of technology to connect people together“. He used MS Excel to programme it, to tweak the algorithms.

To feed the game’s variables, to give depth to the world’s geography he used an open dataset from the UN from 2011, what a fantastic illustration of the power of open data for a simulation tool. I’ve always loved SimCity, it increased my understanding of town planning and urban regeneration. Imagine SimCity powered by open data, with simulation models by sociologists, criminologists, environmentalists. I’ve heard of serious games and I know about simulations used in education, but Plague.Inc really brings the potential to life, and it is a properly fun, engaging, rewarding, challenging game. Imagine what else could be done. Curiosity plus rich data plus talented people can make amazing things happen, I hope this a sign of more to come.

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