Thinking Globally at the Microbial Level

Plague Inc. and the Cultivation of Systems Literacy in a Globalist Era

Kelly Cover Image

Matthew Kelly is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas at Tyler. His research focuses on the role of digital literacies and collective pedagogical practices in video game communities as well as the impact of integrating digital media technologies into the writing classroom.


Originally released for iOS and Android devices in 2012 by developer Ndemic Creations, Plague Inc. is a simulation video game wherein players design a lethal disease in hopes of eradicating all human life on Earth. This game was praised for its unique mechanics, which allow players to customize their disease in order to account for varying geographical climates, the socio-economic conditions of different regions, and even international trade routes. However, Plague Inc. also received attention for its pedagogical potential in the sense that this game introduces players to complex global public health issues in an accessible, streamlined, and entertaining manner.

In this essay, I would like to further explore the pedagogical dimensions of Plague Inc. More specifically, I will argue that this game does not merely introduce players to a topic that is global in nature but also implicitly and explicitly teaches players to inhabit a globalist perspective (meaning, a method of identifying, diagnosing, and solving problems that exist amid a complex constellation of international social, political, and economic variables). In other words, I would like to move beyond the idea that Plague Inc. can teach players about the intricacies of real-world biology or epidemiology and, instead, illustrate how this game can help us re-envision the globalized systems in which these concepts reside.

To accomplish this aim, I will discuss Eric Zimmerman’s theory of “systems literacy,” which is an interpretive framework that highlights the critical thinking skills fostered by video games and gameplay experiences. I will then explain how Plague Inc. cultivates a unique form of systems literacy by coaxing players into manipulating the interrelation between socio-economic, biological, and geographical systems as they spread their disease. Locating parallels between Zimmerman’s ideas and the gameplay experiences created by Plague Inc. can reinforce and refine the unique connection between video games, the critical thinking skills they promote within their players, and the material circumstances of our current globalist era.

Education by Accident?

In Plague Inc., players begin by selecting what form their disease will take (such as a virus or bacterium) and choosing a starting country to begin spreading their contagion. As more humans become infected, players can upgrade their disease with different traits that range from more effective forms of transmission (i.e., waterborne or airborne) to increasingly-deadly symptoms (such as pneumonia or hemorrhagic shock). One of the more unique gameplay mechanics of Plague Inc. is that varying socio-economic and geographical features leave different countries open to different strategies for mass infection. For example, poorer countries are more susceptible to plague symptoms that cause dehydration (such as diarrhea) due to lack of sewage infrastructure and limited access to clean water while agrarian nations are easier to infect if a disease can be transmitted through livestock. Players can even upgrade their plague with antibacterial resistance, which will accelerate infection rates in wealthy countries with strong healthcare systems. Consequently, the most dynamic and challenging aspect of this game is creating synergy between a plague’s biological configuration and the economic or environmental factors of different regions throughout the globe, all while racing against time as humanity attempts to find a cure for the player’s worldwide pandemic.

Plague Inc. (and the extensive remake for PC, Mac, and video game consoles, Plague Inc: Evolved) was met with widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Reviewers were particularly impressed at this game’s ability to translate public health issues and epidemiological processes into a set of accessible gameplay mechanics (Stanton). The positive reception was so widespread that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention invited James Vaughn (the game’s initial developer) to present a lecture on using video games to raise awareness about global health issues. Despite this enthusiastic reception, Vaughn acknowledges that not all biological information represented in the game is completely realistic. In an online interview, he jokingly proclaimed, “Plague Inc. is a game first and foremost. It educates people by accident!” (“Interview”). In another conversation, Vaughn would be a bit more generous to the educational potential of his game:

The game allows [players] to learn a little more about disease in an interactive way […] Plague Inc. simplifies and clarifies key concepts in order to help people learn the really important facts about diseases without bombarding them with too much information. (Nolan)

This statement simultaneously highlights and limits the pedagogical dimensions of Plague Inc. On the one hand, Vaughn acknowledges the ways in which this game streamlines real-world concepts for an audience with little-to-no background knowledge in biology or epidemiology. On the other hand, the phrase “clarifies and simplifies” characterizes Plague Inc. as a type of entertaining springboard that can launch players into more factual explorations about epidemiology elsewhere (as opposed to this game having pedagogical merit unto itself). For the remainder of this analysis, I would like to push back on Vaughn’s sentiments that this game’s educational value lies primarily in its ability to simplify complex concepts. As mentioned previously, the most striking feature of the game is not necessarily the gamification of biological processes but, rather, the positioning of biology within interconnected, globalized systems comprised of political, economic, and environmental variables. Hence, I would like to further explore the unique systems-based gameplay mechanics in order to demonstrate how Plague Inc. can condition its players to view real-world issues through a globalized perspective (i.e., a perspective that can identify and navigate the relationship between several networks of association which extend across multiple countries and regions).

Systems Literacy and Information at Play

The connection between video games and contemporary globalist paradigms has been a notable theme in critical game scholarship. For instance, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter note how the earliest video games were created through the same computing technologies that would eventually be used to establish transnational socio-economic networks throughout the twentieth century (“Games”). From a material perspective, video games are intimately linked to the digital technologies that continue to influence social, political, and economic trends in networked societies. By extension, the act of playing or even designing video games can reflect emergent notions of digitally-mediated cultural representation and economic practices, meaning that video games can operate as cultural artifacts which provide insight into the larger impact that digitally-mediated capitalist systems have on our daily lives. Similarly, Nick Yee explores how the player habits of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) communities mimic the skill sets and labor conditions associated with today’s knowledge-based occupations; everything from repetitive keyboard-based tasks to inventory micro-management to coordinating logistics when organizing multiplayer guilds mirror the type of work associated with corporate office environments (“Proteus”). In this sense, to be a successful game player requires us to function in the same way as a successful office employee (see also Kirkpatrick).

Dyer-Witheford, de Peuter, and Yee have been instrumental in demonstrating how video games are capable of engaging with, embodying, and critiquing the practices that sustain contemporary globalist networks of socio-economic production or exchange. However, these authors often focus their examinations on issues specifically associated with labor in globalized societies. Eric Zimmerman similarly acknowledges the ways in which globalized paradigms have impacted socio-economic trends but he expands his analyses to account for the flexible nature of contemporary information systems when discussing how video games resonate with the unique cultural and technological conditions of our globalist era. Zimmerman argues that the advent of widely-accessible digital media technologies has ushered in a cultural epoch characterized by interconnectivity and collective participation within large-scale information systems. While complex information systems have existed throughout previous centuries, today’s globalized age is unique insofar as “information has taken a playful turn,” meaning that personalized experimentation and innovation are driving forces behind knowledge creation today (“Manifesto”). By extension, our new century can be characterized as ludic (with “ludus” being the Latin word for “play”).

According to Zimmerman, video games are unique cultural artifacts that resonate with this newfound relationship between systems and play. From a structural standpoint, video games can be seen as a collection of formal rule-based systems (i.e., gameplay mechanics, in-game objectives, audio/visual elements, etc), all of which respond to player actions. In learning how to play a video game, we learn how to facilitate and negotiate the interactions between overlapping systems, systems wherein singular actions can have multiple, cascading consequences. Hence, video games can support what Zimmerman deems systems literacy in the sense that games can teach players to diagnose problems or overcome obstacles by analyzing, manipulating, and playing with the interrelationship between multiple systems. Put differently, to be systems literate “means understanding the world as dynamic sets of parts with complex, constantly changing interrelationships” and the rule-based nature of video games is apt for fostering this mindset because they encourage players to play within (and with) systems themselves in order to achieve in-game goals (“Gaming” 25). Furthermore, this systems-based perspective is precisely the type of nuanced interpretive framework that is required for analyzing and addressing contemporary issues in today’s interconnected globalized society.

Destabilizing International Networks

To return to Plague Inc., the ingenuity of this game lies in its ability to teach players how to re-configure and even conflate multiple systems while forging a biological path of destruction. Take, for example, the game’s interface. Despite the macabre nature of unleashing a lethal disease upon unsuspecting populations, the game’s visual aesthetics are relatively straightforward and minimalist. Most of the game plays out via a world map where countries gradually become populated with red dots as infection rates rise.

The world map, which shows the overall progress of a player's disease.

The world map, which shows the overall progress of a player’s disease.

The first few minutes of each playthrough typically results in waiting around while a new contagion slowly gains traction. Meanwhile, small animated plane and ship icons (representing the population’s travel and trade routes, respectively) dart between continents.

Airplanes and ship icons represent international travel and trade routes, respectively.

Airplanes and ship icons represent international travel and trade routes, respectively.

This visual conveyance is important because it trains the player to see the world via the intersection of biological and socio-economic systems; these little icons begin to represent new points of pathogen transmission just as much as they represent trans-national manufacturing industries. From a symbolic standpoint, these swirling planes or boats begin to mimic the appearance and movement of an insect swarm capable of transporting biological material from one place to another (much like bees carrying pollen to different flowers). Through symbolically re-associating international trade and travel with biological processes, players are shown how economic practices can have a direct impact on public health issues.

Red airplanes and ships identify moments where the player's disease has spread to another region.

Red airplanes and ships identify moments where the player’s disease has spread to another region.

This synthesis of economic and biological systems only becomes more intense as the game progresses and players are urged to exploit weak points created by the overlap between these elements (such as evolving infection symptoms to take advantage of poorer countries that lack clean water). In doing so, this game reveals how seemingly-massive and monolithic global systems are actually quite porous and malleable on a molecular level.

Underscoring the interconnected-yet-fragile nature of global networks has been an on-going concern for the game’s developers. In the years following this game’s initial release Ndemic Creations have released several “scenarios” (i.e., add-on content) based on real-world or hypothetical events, each of which impose new restrictions that demand new gameplay strategies. One scenario, deemed “Sovereign Default,” simulates the potential economic consequences of failing to raise the United States’ debt ceiling. In this scenario, many regions that had “Rich” economic strength, such as the United States and countries throughout the European Union, are now considered “Average” and have reduced resources for combating the player’s disease. However, Saudi Arabia and China are now considered rich countries and, by extension, have greater scientific resources for devising a cure. While these changes do not introduce radically-different mechanics to the base game, this customized game setup calls attention to an overlooked dimension regarding today’s international finance networks. That is to say, this scenario uses a debt-ravaged planet to illustrate the precarious state of global markets by simulating the potential repercussions of distributing US debt across many other countries and regions. Consequently, the combination of China’s advancement alongside the United States’ and Europe’s setbacks does not just require players to create new infection strategies based on a revised set of socio-economic parameters. Instead, this new scenario uses a biological system (i.e., the player’s disease and the gameplay strategies used to spread it) to emphasize the delicate balance of international economies.

If the opening moments of a standard Plague Inc. game teaches players to re-signify economic variables as potential biological vehicles (i.e., boats and planes become pathogen transmitters), the Sovereign Default scenario teaches players to use biological concepts as a way to understand the financial entanglements that can potentially wreak havoc on global economic stability. In other words, Plague Inc. is not simply a game which superimposes biology onto economic, political, or geographic events. Instead, this game uses biological systems as a frame of reference for exploring the dynamic interplay between other networks of association. This, in turn, illustrates how Plague Inc. can help players grasp the intricacies of global concerns by re-envisioning these issues at the microbial level.

Thinking Through a Globalized Perspective

I agree with developer James Vaughn’s initial remarks regarding the realistic nature of the biological processes simulated in Plague Inc.; this game does sacrifice scientific fidelity for the sake of entertainment and accessibility. However, I also believe this game has pedagogical merit when it comes to globalization and global issues. Prompting players to locate weak points in global networks that might appear stable and secure at first sight is a process wherein players learn to become systems literate (that is, we learn how to manipulate and exploit the interaction between complex, interconnected systems as we plot our world domination). Put differently, Plague Inc. can help us view biology as one of many systems within a complex entanglement of politics, economics, and geography on an international scale, and locating points-of-failure within this entanglement cultivates the same type of critical thinking skills required to tackle global issues without resorting to generalizations or over-simplifications. Ultimately, Plague Inc. demonstrates how inhabiting a globalized perspective does not simply entail thinking big or thinking broadly about issues that cut across national boundaries. Rather, the novel gameplay premise of Plague Inc. underscores the notion that a globalized perspective is a systems-based perspective. In doing so, this game reinforces the argument that video games are well-positioned to cultivate the critical thinking skills that enable individuals to identify and explore the interrelationship between seemingly-disconnected networks of association within our contemporary globalist paradigm.

Works Cited

Dyer-Witheford, Nick & de Peuter, Greig. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Interview with James Vaughan about Plague Inc: Evolved.”

Kirkpatrick, Graeme. Computer Games and the Social Imaginary. Boston, Polity, 2013.

Nolan, Katie. “Games and Global Health: An Interview with Plague Inc. Creator James

Plague Inc. Ndemic Creations, 2012. iOS and Android.

Plague Inc: Evolved. Ndemic Creations, 2016. PC, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One.

Stanton, Rich. “Plague Inc. Review.”

Zimmerman, Eric. “Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century.” The Video Game Theory Reader (2nd Edition), edited by Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf, Routledge, 2009, 23-31.

———. “Manifesto for a Ludic Century.”

Yee, Nick. The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us – and How They Don’t. New Haven,