Screenshot from Plague Inc game trailer

For CDC, preventing the spread of Plague is part of the game

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a difficult mission — not only controlling diseases, but preventing their spread. The control part depends on science and research and happens after a threat appears. The prevention side of the mission is all about public outreach. Stopping any virus or bacteria from spreading is a much better outcome than combating an epidemic.

The agency’s evolving outreach efforts have always focused on capturing people's imaginations, relying on contemporary references. A 2011 blog spoof about combatting the pending Zombie Apocalypse was really a way to raise awareness about preparing an emergency kit.  The idea went viral, so to speak, even crashing the CDC servers for a time. It was the most successful outreach program the CDC has ever conducted.

Now CDC has taken an interest in one of the hottest pandemic-based games ever created, Plague Inc. According to the Polygon website, the game's creator James Vaughan has been invited to speak at the CDC later this month before heading to the Game Developers Conference. The private meeting will give Vaughan the chance to chat with CDC officials about ways they can use technology, and especially mobile devices, to reach out to the public in an even bigger way than the zombie effort did.

Plague Inc. mimics the ways real viruses and contagious diseases spread, such as coming into a new country though airports or riding along with international travelers. In fact, the player takes the role of the disease itself, with the goal of wiping out the entire population of the world.

The game's strategies again mimic different viruses. Players can try to kill a lot of people really fast, but such a move will prompt research into fighting the disease and will cause some countries to go into lockdown mode, making it hard to infect them. Or the player's disease can do a slow build, infecting many people with mostly nuisance symptoms and being ignored before mutating into a much deadlier form.

Vaughan stressed to Polygon that he doesn’t have a medical background, even though he seems to have gotten most of the facts right in his game. But CDC probably isn’t interested in his medical skills. Officials are probably much more interested in how to use a game or an app like Plague Inc. to raise awareness and help stop the spread of real viruses.

The meeting is closed to the public, so we won’t know for a while what, if anything, comes out of it. But given the CDC's innovative outreach, the agency may be able to tap into a little bit of Vaughan’s magic to do some real good in the world. Perhaps we might even see a Plague II partnership effort with the CDC, though that might be putting the pandemic a bit ahead of the disease.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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