Doomsday app games about plague and disaster are going viral in China

Parallel worlds.
Parallel worlds.
Image: AP
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Strategy games about epidemics and war are going viral in China, just as it’s facing a real-life challenge of grappling with a fast-spreading new virus that has led to hundreds of infections and nine deaths.

Plague Inc. and Rebel Inc., both developed by British game studio Ndemic Creations, have seen a surge in downloads since Monday (Jan. 20), the day China announced that a new pneumonia-like illness had spread to cities outside Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began.

Plague Inc., which lets players evolve a pathogen to wipe out humanity, jumped from the fifth spot on Monday to top the charts among paid games on China’s iOS store as of Wednesday (Jan. 22), according to data provider Sensor Tower. Meanwhile, Rebel Inc., which requires users to stabilize a war-torn country and “win the hearts and minds of the people” while also trying to prevent a deadly insurgency from taking power, jumped from the 27th spot on Monday to fifth on Wednesday.

The popularity of the doomsday simulation games comes as worries have increased about the new coronavirus, a type of virus that can cause colds but also more serious respiratory illnesses, as it spread to more cities in China and more countries this week. The country’s health commission said on Wednesday authorities have confirmed more than 440 infections and nine deaths, a sharp increase from around 300 cases and six deaths reported a day before. Outside mainland China, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Macau, Japan and South Korea have reported confirmed cases of the illness, which can be transmitted human-to-human.

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, many joked darkly about the similarities between the games and the real situation. “The best way to get rid of fear is to face the fear itself,” wrote 17173, a Chinese game news site, commenting on Plague Inc.’s sudden rise in popularity. Some users said that in order to have a more immersive experience, they chose China as the origin country that exports the virus to other regions in the game. Others felt especially connected to the fake news scenario in Plague that allows players to use modern technology and psychological tricks to spread misinformation about the virus.

“This scenario feels so real,” said a user. There has already been a strong online backlash against Chinese authorities over their handling of the disease, with some people complaining that information updates are not coming quickly enough, and others criticizing the Wuhan government for having a slow response initially.

The public distrust in authorities can be traced back to 2003, and the SARS epidemic, a deadly coronavirus that also originated China and killed close to 800 people in the region. Beijing was at the time accused of covering up information in the early stages and being slow to report cases to the World Health Organization. While China is now in the age of social media, which allow for online updates from municipalities and internet discussions of the virus, China’s strict online censorship regime (paywall) continues to fuel suspicion about the government.

A leading Chinese infectious diseases expert known for his role in combatting SARS, however, says China is being transparent, while a top Chinese  political body has warned officials that if they dare to suppress information this time they would be “nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”