As 24-hour news channels devote their coverage to the Ebola outbreak, a game about infectious diseases has seen a dramatic spike in downloads.
Downloads of Plague Inc., a free game which simulates the spread of a deadly worldwide virus, have risen 50 percent in the last two weeks, according to developer James Vaughan.
Vaughan, who runs one-man studio Ndemic Creations, said that the game has spiked in the past, usually as a result of updates, but its recent climb up the mobile play charts is all down to interest in Ebola, which has so far killed an estimated 5,500 people.
Plague Inc. is an intelligent strategy game that looks at how infectious diseases can spread. "This is the first time something in the real world has has an effect on the sales charts, especially since Ebola came over to America," Vaughan told Polygon. "People are curious about it and want to know more about infectious diseases. Plague Inc. can play a role because it's an intelligent look at how infectious diseases can spread."
Plague Inc. puts the player in the role of a pathogen. The goal of the game is to spread as far as possible. London-based Vaughan said he wants to use interest in the game to help charities that are working to fight the spread of Ebola.
"Plague Inc. has an audience of 35 million people who have downloaded it since the game launched. I want to help in any way I can, whether that is raising funds or raising awareness. I'm currently talking to major charities to see if Plague Inc. can be used as a tool to help in some way."
Players can give their plague any name they choose, so it's no surprise to see screenshots emerging with the word "Ebola" taking prominence. Vaughan said that the diseases in his game differ from Ebola in that "the algorithms are designed to assume that air transmission is possible and they also don't assume that it takes a number of days or weeks before people are able to spread the disease." A version of Ebola that can be air transmitted has not emerged, despite significant fears that a mutation is possible
Vaughan said that he is not planning to amend the game to address the Ebola outbreak directly. "From an academic point of view the model could very easily be adapted," he said. "But at the moment it's important to keep the focus on the outbreak and I don't want to appear to be trivializing it by taking the outbreak and making it into a game. Plague Inc. is already able to raise awareness of the significance of the outbreak."
He added that an understanding of how infectious diseases work can help address their spread,. "A disease in one country affects us all. People have been talking about quarantining West Africa so we [elsewhere in the world] don't have to be concerned about it, but that is absolutely incorrect. In out multi-connected world, a disease in one country is a threat to everybody.
"This is why months ago we should have been adopting a far more coordinated approach to tackle the outbreak as a global community. Putting aside the very real humanitarian aspects of helping the people in West Africa there is the selfish aspect as well."