Infectious Apocalypse- What video games can teach us about real life diseases
So I have been playing a lot of Phoenix Point lately, a video game in which a virus drives people mad and turns them into fish monsters and similarly The Last of Us 2 (a game about a fungal infection driving people mad and turning them into mushroom monsters) which came out recntly(ish). Doesn’t matter, time isn’t real. Let’s talk about real world spooky parasites and an infection apocalypse.
Having mentioned The Last of Us 2 it seems appropriate to start with what influenced that game’s parasite and the one of the two in this article you are most likely to have heard of, “Ophiocordyceps unilateralis”. This name actually represents many individual species which infect different ant species. Interestingly enough it seems that any one species has specialised such that it can only successfully affect one type of ant.
The normal cycle of infection goes as such:
First thing is an ant picks up a spore from the ground, and then the spore has to work its way into the ant’s body. It does this by buying it a nice dinner before going on a moonlit boat road ride through Venice (citation needed). If a high enough number of fungal cells are present in the brain and in various muscle tissue of the ant then the secretion of various chemicals important in the behaviour of ants (known as metabolites) begins. These metabolites are used to control the ant’s body into climbing a nearby tree or plant surface to the optimal height for a new fungus to begin growing from. At this point a spooky gross stalk grows out of the ant’s brain to release new spores and thus the cycle starts again.
Fortunately for you and me, being robbed of our bodily autonomy by an unthinking and unfeeling fungus propagating its life cycle by destroying our body from the inside out while replacing our thoughts, hopes and dreams with spores, is extremely unlikely.
Let’s move on to our second parasite. Toxoplasma gondii is a virus that is known to infect rodents. However, it actually completes its life cycle within the body of a cat. Now you might wonder how does the virus get from Jerry to Tom?
Well Toxoplasma gondii reduces the fear response within rodents and increases their extra qualities making it more likely a cat will catch and eat them.
Toxoplasma gondii is not the only parasite that has this habit however it has been the topic of several studies (here is an example of one) that are looking at behavioural effects in humans and possibly causing schizophrenia, depression or decreasing neurocognitive performance.
The reason I chose T.gondii in particular is because of its high infection rate, with estimates reaching as high as a third of all people, which if not an apocalypse (although if T.gondii turned us all into zombies that would probably qualify), it is certainly a bit of a fuss. So far it seems uncertain that T.gondii causes an issue in human behaviour, unlike the ant mind control fungus which would cause an issue IF it could affect humans. I wonder what life would be like if something were infecting loads of people and causing serious health problems, what a truly dire time that would be to live in?
I think it’s interesting how these pathogen based apocalypses from both Phoenix Point and TLOU2 are both parasitic. It makes sense because having a parasitic virus turn most of humanity into either: militant fish people/bulletproof mushroom people (delete where appropriate) presents a much more credible threat than, say, a virus that gives you a nasty cough but is otherwise invisible to human perception. Who should even bother giving it the time of day?
Giving the global threat of the time, a body and air of malicious intent makes it so much easier to rally behind wanting it gone but for Covid-19 (casual name drop) we do not have such a luxury. We can’t point a gun at this invisible enemy or hit it with a lead pipe and unless you know someone who is suffering from it, the awful effects it can have are hard to see. If you know anyone who doesn’t wear a mask in the shops or who spends a lot of time at the beach because they “don’t see what all the fuss is about a little cough never killed anyone”, encourage them to think about not just their own lives or the lives of the healthy who it is unlikely to kill, but the lives of the vulnerable who are at serious risk of dying.
And maybe play a more light hearted game, that Fall Guys seems quite good.
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