Playing through the anxiety

photo from Business Insider 1/28/2020

In the past week, a mobile strategy game called Plague Inc, where your goal is to destroy humanity by spreading a plague, has become incredibly popular in the US and China. The developer, Ndemic Creations, says they see spikes in downloads whenever there’s a outbreak of disease.  In an interview with Business Insider’s Shera Feder, I talked about how people might be using these games to work through their anxiety.  My work with veterans shows that some feel games help them put their combat and mental health recovery experiences in perspective-they play through their anxiety and find meaning.  Games can allow players to blow off steam, sure. But the popularity of virtual reality exposure therapy for PTSD has shown that games have the potential for a lot more.

In this case, it looks like the specific anxiety people might be trying to play through is fear of the coronavirus and how it spreads. Ndemic didn’t create the game to educate, but the developer did put a lot of effort into making sure they got the basics right. So much so that the CDC recognized Plague Inc as a possible tool for educating about outbreaks.  Ndemic cautions against thinking of the game as science. It directs users to the World Health Organization for real information about outbreaks, which is a great idea.

The CDC is right to recognize the potential for games as public health proving grounds. The Corrupted Blood Incident in World of Warcraft is a great example of that.  In 2005, a bug in the Zul’Gurub dungeon allowed a virtual plague to spread throughout the online world. The plague spread when players came from the remote dungeon (a separate server) into the massively populated game.   Epidemiologists worldwide quickly realized that some player behaviors were actually good parallels to other real-world behaviors during epidemics.  For example, some players rushed to the popular city centers to see the plague, caught it, and died.

I’m going to end this for now with something for everyone to think about: imagine if MMO developers could work with public health scientists to use their games to model infectious diseases? I hope these types of partnerships and the opportunities they would bring to learn about public health-and save millions of lives-are not far in the future.


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