It starts on Black Friday, as shoppers storm high street stores in search of the next bargain. Little do they know that the hard-earned cash they're spending carries something lethal.
Within hours, as consumers mingle and move across town and country, a highly contagious virus has infected millions of Americans in every city.
By the time symptoms of the virus manifest, it's already too late to prevent the pandemic engulfing the nation. Panic ensues. Borders are closed. Streets, towns, whole cities are quarantined.
Caught off guard, the collapse of the US government commences. Critical public services—water, transport, electricity, food—breakdown, as supply-chains fall apart.
Could it happen?
Before you start hoarding baked beans in a makeshift backyard bunker, this scenario of rapid social collapse is not a prediction. It's fiction: the brainchild of developer Ubisoft Massive, for their eagerly anticipated game Tom Clancy's The Division.
Except, to make the scenario as plausible as possible, the developers drew on a wealth of scientific data. If a pandemic really did hit New York City, Tom Clancy's The Division provides a surprisingly authentic representation of how it could play out.
Over the last few decades, scientific assessments of the risk of a pandemic have viewed the threat with increasing seriousness. And it's now widely recognized that our societies are woefully unprepared.
What's worse is that the risk is not from bio-terrorism—but from industrial civilization itself.
In 2006, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a guide on pandemic preparedness, which warned: "The mounting risk of a worldwide influenza pandemic poses numerous potentially devastating consequences for critical infrastructure in the United States. A pandemic will likely reduce dramatically the number of available workers in all sectors, and significantly disrupt the movement of people and goods, which will threaten essential services and operations."
After avian flu had spread from Asia to Europe in 2005, Mike Leavitt, US secretary of state for the Department of Health and Human Services, observed, "Some will say this discussion of the Avian Flu is an overreaction… The reality is that if the H5N1 pandemic virus does not trigger pandemic flu, there will be another virus that will."
"State, Local and Tribal jurisdictions will be overwhelmed and unable to provide or ensure the provision of essential commodities and services," says a Department of Defense document detailing the potential impact of a flu pandemic, declassified in 2009. A pandemic could also "cause significant economic and security ramifications; potentially including large-scale social unrest due to fear of infection or concerns about safety."
Other consequences are likely to include "international military conflict, increased terrorist activity, internal unrest, political and or economic collapse, humanitarian crises, and dramatic social change."
Last January, the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future, an independent panel of distinguished scientists, issued a landmark report finding that annual economic losses from pandemics could reach $60 billion.
Over the next century, the Commission predicts, the world will experience at least one pandemic – and there's a 20 percent chance of experiencing four or more pandemics in this period.
The collapse simulator
So the rapid collapse scenario used in The Division, while fictional, is still realistic.
Ubisoft commissioned the French firm, BETC, to create a software tool, "Collapse: The End of Society Simulator," to help create the scenario for the game.
I got a chance to try out a Beta version of Ubisoft's Collapse simulator, and it's scary. All you have to do is punch in the address of your location—or any location you want to test out—and let the simulation run.
The simulator treats you as "patient zero," the person carrying the virus, to test how long it would take for a fictional smallpox virus to culminate in global collapse.
The virus used in the simulator, Variola Chimera, is a fictional weaponized version of the naturally occurring smallpox, Variola Major. Chimera has a faster incubation time than natural smallpox (seven, rather than 11 days), a higher mortality rate of 90 percent, and, because it's been modified for use as a bio-weapon, there's no vaccine immediately available.
To create a plausible model-run, the End of Society Simulator draws on open source information for over 5,000 cities on population densities, hospital and bed numbers, connections between cities, local municipalities, and the rest of the world, as well as other real-world data.
After punching in my coordinates from North London, I watch in horror as my every minor move within a tiny vicinity leads the virus to rapidly infect hundreds and thousands of people.
My first step is to visit the hospital when it becomes clear I'm really ill, which does little except infect 400,341 people by Day 4.
I get discharged the next day. The government is delivering emergency vaccines, so I head out to my nearest distribution venue. It's so crowded, I'm still queuing until Day 6 - when the vaccines run out.
I head to the local supermarket to stock up. The shelves are virtually empty, and fighting's broken out over what's left. The government declares a state of emergency.
By Day 9, over 2 million are infected, the death toll is up to 398,411, and the cops can't contain the chaotic rioting on the streets.
I'd already booked a flight to Geneva days earlier to get away. By the time we land, over 13 million people are infected worldwide, and 773,411 people dead. Martial law is declared in major cities.
By Day 22, half a billion people have died, with 1.4 billion infected. Energy infrastructure, communications systems and supply-chains fail. Military chains of command break down.
By Day 24, the world as we know it has collapsed.
The End of Society Simulator helped create The Division's scenario for New York City: the contagion rate and death rate of its virus matches the fictional smallpox strain in the game.
Yet the scenario in the game has long been considered a real threat by national security officials.
"The Division takes as one of its major real-world inspirations something called Operation Dark Winter, a military simulation of a covert smallpox terrorist attack on the United States carried out in June 2001," explained the game's IP director, Martin Hultberg.
Exercises like Dark Winter eventually led the Bush administration to pass the National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive—otherwise known as "Directive 51"— which contains annexes so classified, even members of Congress on the Homeland Security Committee are denied access to them.
Directive 51's purpose is to maintain "Continuity of Government" in the event of a "Catastrophic Emergency"—defined as "any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the US population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions."
The Directive includes even "localized acts of nature and accidents" as well as "technological or attack-related" emergencies in this definition.
It grants the President draconian powers including the suspension of all elections, the complete subordination of federal and local government departments to the executive branch, and the extension of military command into civilian life.
The unknown content of Directive 51's classified annexes is wonderfully fertile ground for The Division's Tom Clancy-inspired world of covert operations and top secret agencies.
"We speculated that part of these 'continuity of government' plans could include the creation of secret, autonomous military cells, with no rules of engagement, dispersed throughout society going about their normal lives, waiting to be activated by the outbreak of an emergency like a pandemic: The Division," said Hultberg.
The idea of such covert "stay behind" armies, Hultberg said, is inspired by history: real NATO "stay behind" covert cells established across Europe by MI6 during the Second World War, to prepare for the possibility of an imminent Soviet invasion.
Although established as "sleeper cells" that would spring quickly into action if the USSR decided to force its way into Europe during the Cold War, in reality these covert cells recruited widely from dubious nationalist and far-right groups. They were also so secret that even national governments often knew nothing about their existence.
The result, as documented by Swiss historian Dr. Daniele Ganser, is that these groups, lacking oversight, carried out terrorist attacks blamed on groups considered to be too leftist or pro-Communist – the idea being to discredit political movements deemed dangerous for perceived sympathies with the USSR.
This little-known history grounds The Division in reality, but also fits Ubisoft's ambitions to grant players real freedom in making choices about how to play in the open world environment of a collapsed New York.
With no rules of engagement—just like in the real history of NATO's 'stay behind' armies—players are free to make all sorts of moral choices about how to take back the streets of NYC from criminal factions competing for scarce resources. And this backstory provides ample leeway for Ubisoft to craft an exciting narrative woven from some of the darkest secrets of the intelligence world.
So can your console save the world from the next pandemic?
But there's potentially much more to The Division than mere entertainment.
Ubisoft's End of Society Simulator—which helped craft The Division's scenario of New York's collapse—could provide a powerful framework for the scientific community to further explore potential scenarios for the spread of different diseases.
By altering the parameters of the virus used in the simulator, and bulking it up with more detailed data on infrastructure, the simulator could rival conventional modeling techniques in the way it captures the likely impacts of an epidemic or pandemic. An adapted version of the simulator could act as a useful tool for scenario analysis, and to test the resilience of different societies.
As a cultural product, The Division is undoubtedly a reflection of the times – where heightened social, political and economic stresses continue to evoke awareness of the myriad of risks to our civilization: whether longer-term, such as climate change; or short-term, such as economic recession.
But the game will also mainstream awareness that there are very real vulnerabilities at the heart of industrial civilization as we know it; that stunning technological progress has come at the price of escalating risks to our very survival.
This recurring theme in entertainment may well manifest all too human anxieties about death. But it also reflects a growing consciousness, backed by the scientific community, that nature has boundaries—and that when we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.