Assessing Digital Diseases

Since I was a child, infectious diseases have been one of my most consistent fears. At mere mention of the Ebola virus, my skin crawls while I fight the urge to wash my hands. As PopMatters’s own Dan Dinello rightly points out, “[p]op culture runs rampant” with disease ”and has for some time” (“The Contagious Age”, PopMatters, 8 September 2011). Contagions have long offered potent analogies for the social and political fears of an era. Early zombie films explored the deadening effect of consumerist culture, while more modern takes on the undead have addressed governmental inadequacies and cultures of violence. While Dinello offers a thorough exploration of infections through film and literature, he only briefly touches upon disease in games. Surely the interactive medium offers wholly unique takes on plagues and pustules? Upon closer inspection, have games upheld the long tradition of exploring social and political issues by horrifying, repulsing, and upsetting us with disease?

The single more terrifying element of epidemics and diseases are how they completely and suddenly upset normalcy. From the global context to our own communities, the dread of disease lies in its ability to upend expectations. As Dinello points out, “In our age of global networking and circulation of people and goods, contagion threatens to violate secure borders, invade our society, and proliferate out of control.” Games may have difficulty evoking this menace when interactivity demands players maintain some degree of satisfying control, even in the most dire circumstances.

Pandemic, a flash-based game not to be confused with the board game of the same name, navigates this difficulty by allowing players to embody a plague of their own design. By selecting and evolving their disease’s symptoms and communicative properties, players can forge a silent killer and watch as it spreads across the world indiscriminately. Unfortunately the game’s educational components undermine its ability to convey the horror and gravity of a worldwide epidemic. Mankind, it turns out, is quite resistant, particularly when Madagascar shuts its borders at the slightest cough.


The Trauma Center series perhaps offers a more grotesque and upfront take on disease by asking players to perform surgery on infected victims. The series features several viral mutations, some of which turn organs into stone or cause severe lacerations. While Trauma Center gives players too much control to really evoke a sense of helplessness, it does give players a particularly raw opportunity to see the ravages of contagion from the inside.

Square’s Parasite Eve strikes close to the themes that Dinello explores in film and literature. The horrors of infection are laid bare in the game with each grotesque mutation of once normal creatures. In Dinello’s words, “terror results from the uncontrollable, exponential proliferation of these hungry, demanding predators.” Their presence represents a cultural fear of invasion: “virulent contagion, like terrorism, suggests a subversive order of infiltration, takeover, and spread.” Although released three years before terrorism became America’s persistent nightmare, Parasite Eve conjures many of its fears. Throughout the series, normalcy is upended. Safe public spaces, from opera houses to zoos, become sites of spontaneous infection, birthing monstrosities where once was calm. With previously crowded New York locations abandoned, save for the presence of the player, Parasite Eve exploits a familiar fear of societal destruction by a force that seeks not to convert, but to destroy, in this case through spontaneous combustion.

Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, features a star-studded cast facing a global pandemic. Even minor rolls are filled by well known celebrities, all of whom may succumb quickly to infection. As famous stars die off after just a few scenes, it becomes disturbingly clear that nothing is sacred; diseases do not descriminate. As Dinello articulates, a contagion is unique because “it strikes from within, driving everyone into paranoid isolation, afraid of touching anyone. There’s no honor, just suffering. Courage is useless against a bacterium, a fungal spore, a virus that slipped into you by water, by touch, or by breath.”

In Contagion, no one is safe, but in games, we often are. We are the protagonist, the solitary hero. Our loved ones are often absent, and we are more likely to go out in blaze of glory before we succumb to the common cold. On the rare occasion that our digital avatars can become ill, with very few exceptions, miracle elixirs abound. The vast majority of RPGs fit into this category. Why fear disease when a cheap potion can cure blindness? I would leave this genre out of the discussion entirely were it not for one particular reoccurring monster from the Final Fantasy series: the infamous Marlboro. With its “Bad Breath,” this tentacled beast inflicts nearly every status ailment possible onto the entire party. Few games can match the gripping sense of helplessness when entirely debilitated by disease.

World of Warcraft

One other notable, albeit unique, example of player infection is World of Warcraft’s famous Hakaar’s Corrupted Blood Plague incident. Passed onto players during a particular boss fight, the corrupted blood caused players to lose life over time and could be passed to nearby players, making it incredibly contagious. Initially a raid-only affliction, the disease escaped its intended confines as players intentionally and unintentionally carried it to major cities. Low-level characters would die almost instantly to the plague but even high-level players were infected. While Blizzard received scorn, scientists received a bevy of simulation data about how contagions spread and players were treated with the rare sensation of paranoia in the face of an indiscriminate and deadly force.

Dinello describes how our fear of epidemics “also reflects distress not only about biological disease and terrorism, but also about explosive social changes in the 21st century.” Our discomfort with sudden and profound change is partially conveyed by the horror of disease in pop culture. The incredibly powerful opening moments of 28 Days Later capture this fear perfectly. Our protagonist awakens from a coma to find the world unrecognizable. The city streets deserted. Our empty urban landscape becomes a supine and unsettling epitaph to the end of civilization.

Interestingly, both the aforementioned blood plague and Blizzard’s intentionally created zombie plague dramatically and suddenly altered gameplay, creating a shock amongst the player community. During the zombie outbreak, I recall flying over a major city infested with the undead. Non-zombie players hovered over the landscape on their flying mounts, having abandoned the streets to the plague. It created an altogether unsettling and thrilling experience familiar in film and literature, but one that is all too rare in games.

Of course I must make note of the countless zombie themes games that have flooded the market (Get it? The Flood?). From Resident Evil’s T-Virus to the virus in the recently released Dead Island, undead outbreaks in games have long followed the cinematic and literary tradition of acting as critiques of scientific, corporate, or personal greed. Often human ignorance or malicious actors are behind these diseases, many of which are quickly isolated and are curable. While many of these games are fun — and maybe even frightening — few achieve the sense of fear, paranoia, and isolation achieved by their media counterparts.

Left 4 Dead 2

I make large exception for my favorite zombie themed series, Valve’s Left 4 Dead. Few, if any, horror films can elicit the amount of dread that I first felt at the telltale sound of a witch, the incessant weeping of an incredibly deadly opponent. The stress of navigating this obstacle carefully can suddenly give way to panic as hordes of zombies pour out of a nearby doorway. Like the Parasite Eveand World of Warcraft examples, the empty city streets and abandoned homes also reflect our fear of profound change and the end of normalcy. Walking through empty Lousiana streets in daylight enhances the feelings of abandonment and isolation. The series also shrugs aside the unnecessary pursuit of explanation, focusing not on the source of the disease but on the response to it, making one of the most intelligently written first-person shooters on the market.

Yet even Left 4 Dead struggles to evoke the sense of loss and fear at the thought of losing a loved one to contagion. While hastily scrawled messages and covered corpses allude to distraught and fearful civilians, the protagonists suffer no significant loss of their own. While an ally going down in a blaze of glory or being swept away by a tide of zombies can certainly be exhilarating, it has more in common with the light hearted or dissapointing moments created by a friend dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail. Games have a long way to go before they move the heart as well as our gut.

Left 4 Dead and most games predominantly featuring contagions make up for their limitations with interactive themes of inspiration. As Dinello briefly explores, diseases in pop culture reflect our fears just as much as our hopes and values. Heroes do win, families do occasionally survive, and humans adapt, survive, and carry on. Player agency, which limits viral themes in the medium in many ways, also strengthens our reflections on determination and the human spirit. Games convey a sense of tenacity better than most disease infested film and literature can achieve. Watching a protagonist overcome adversity can — and frequently does — inspire an audience, actually surviving a plague on your own or sacrificing yourself for the survival of others creates a wholly unique and powerful sensation. When our social, political, and cultural anxieties become overwhelming, when their embodiments stalk our television screens too often, we have a cathartic place to fight and defeat our intangible fears.


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