In Ubisoft’s upcoming video game, Tom Clancy’s The Division, New York City—the mecca of capitalism—is attacked by a virus that spreads through the money supply on Black Friday. The city of 8 million people is abruptly quarantined. And, within weeks, law and order is eradicated and emergency forces lose all control, save a last-remaining stronghold in Chelsea Piers.
The developers of The Division aren’t revealing what the virus is or how it infects the money supply, because players will grapple with those uncertainties while fighting to take back the city. But, like all Tom Clancy games, The Division is “grounded in reality,” as the developers say. The de-evolution of society presented in the game is modeled after the findings of a 2001 government exercise to see how the US would react to a smallpox attack. And using cash to carry out the attack was the ideal metaphor for spreading the virus, Julian Gerighty, associate creative director at Ubisoft, told Quartz.
“Money, Black Friday, the crowds, the panic, the activity, this frenzy around shopping … it’s this uncontrollable fever that starts to spread,” said Gerighty. “We tried to make this parallel between the organisms in the virus and people shopping on Black Friday.”
When considering the economics of a biological attack that uses cash as a conduit, the reality behind the fiction becomes even more grim.
Lower-income people without bank accounts tend to use cash for large transactions more than the general US population. They would probably also be the ones buying the deeply-discounted TVs, electronics, and home appliances sold on Black Friday with cash. Presumably, lower- and middle-income workers, like cashiers and bank tellers, would also handle cash more often than others, as would restaurant and other service workers who survive primarily on tips or under-the-table payments. While cash is still used broadly in the US for small purchases, these groups might be more vulnerable to, or even the primary target of, a biological attack on US currency.
Infectious-disease experts contacted by Quartz declined to comment on how feasible the scenario laid out in the game is, because they did not want to give nefarious parties any ideas.
But disaster-preparedness expert and former Popular Mechanics reporter John Galvin pointed to a 2014 NYU study on dollar bills collected in New York City that found plenty of bacteria hiding in US currency. Most of it was harmless, but the “Dirty Money” project also identified microorganisms linked to acne, gastric ulcers, pneumonia, food poisoning, and staph infections, as well as genes that cause antibiotic resistance, the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall).
US dollars carry even more bacteria than some other paper currencies because they’re printed on a cotton blend that’s more absorbent than the polymer bills in countries like New Zealand, Mexico, and Australia, researchers at Australia’s University of Ballarat found.
The Division, which takes place in a hauntingly familiar and exhaustively detailed disaster-ridden version of Midtown Manhattan, is slated for release on Mar. 8.