Forget Angry Birds and Temple Run. One of the top games on iTunes right now is Plague Inc., a simulation strategy game that has as its goal genetically engineering a virus and killing everyone on Earth before your disease is discovered and cured.
Over the course of a game, players introduce new symptoms and mutate their viruses, genetically engineering them to spread more rapidly or to be more lethal. Experienced players say the trick is to not make your virus too deadly too soon. If you kill off the sick too fast, they have little chance of spreading your disease and helping you achieve your goal. Throughout the course of the game, a live fake news feed scrolls by so you can track the damaging effects of your pathogenic swath of destruction. "Peru's government has fallen," and "Eurozone collapses" are some of the headlines I saw.
Plague Inc. has sold more than a million copies since its release around Memorial Day, according to James Vaughan, who developed the game as a hobby. It was the No. 1 selling game on iTunes for the first two weeks after its release, and still remains in the top 25 paid iPhone apps. The game has received more than 39,000 5-star reviews from players around the world, and more than 10 million games have been played to date.
What's most impressive is that Ndemic Creations is a small-scale startup that released the game with no marketing budget or hype. Plague Inc. is a viral success in every sense of the term.
There are probably a few reasons why the game has done so well. Players tell me it's well-done and fun to play. But the game's success probably also has to do with our desire to exert some control over the inescapable atmosphere of doomsday destruction that pervades the real headlines. Pick any topic -- the presidential election, the U.S. economy, the future of the euro -- and you can easily become overwhelmed with "worst of the worst" scenarios.
About the same time that Plague Inc. was hitting its stride last month, a member of the social news network Reddit posted the results of his decade-long game of Civilization II, one of the most successful simulation strategy games of all time. In Civilization games, players start with small tribes and attempt to grow them into empires by managing resources, waging war, engaging in diplomacy and building industry.
The player, who goes by the name Lycerius on Reddit, explained that his world, now in the year 3991 A.D., is "a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation" where three remaining super nations are "competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands." Inhabitants "have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2,000 years," and "Peace seems to be impossible."
Rather than bragging about his endurance and even chatting idly about his efforts, Lycerius went to the social network asking for help. He wrote on Reddit: "My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war and thus use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I'm not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I'm listening."
Lycerius has received an overwhelming number of responses and assistance in the past few weeks. A new ongoing discussion thread, dedicated to ending the "Eternal War," was created, and it now has more than 14,000 subscribers trying to make things better.
It's easy to deem the fascination with the worst-of-the-worst illustrated by Plague Inc., and the Civ II mega-marathon as a negative thing, but that's too simple. The circumstances of these games are extreme, and they do give players an opportunity to explore dark sides and downward turns. But the attraction for many is seeking solutions and searching for ways to influence what happens in the largest global sense. It's about keeping up hope -- even in the most dire of circumstances.
In Lycerius' simulation of civilization, even after nearly 2,000 years of devastating nuclear war, no one is suggesting hitting "game over." Instead a group of players is trying to figure a way out to survive, and move forward.
That's not a bad lesson as we contemplate our current, actual reality.
Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.