There are serious lessons to be learned from games that feature plagues and infections — but there’s fun to be had, too.
Nobody expected the virus to spread so fast. They thought it could be contained, but in a matter of hours the streets of Stormwind and Ironforge were strewn with the corpses of humans, gnomes and elves. In 2005, an uncontrolled plague hit the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, and nobody was safe.
It originated in Zul’Gurub, the jungle lair of winged serpent Hakkar the Soulflayer. Elite warriors battling Hakkar could be afflicted by “Corrupted Blood”, a contagious spell which caused their health to drain away and could be transmitted to players nearby. While game designers wrote code to ensure that players couldn’t carry the disease beyond the dungeon, they forgot to protect players’ pets. These animal familiars carried Corrupted Blood to cities where it spread like a mushroom cloud, felling countless low-level players who barely had time to run.
Within days, game developers took the strong, co-ordinated action such crises demand: they reset the game server and fixed the glitch. Though the plague was over, real-world epidemiologists had taken notice. Medical researchers commonly use simulations to model infectious disease outbreaks, and here was a ready-made example of how human minds respond to a pandemic. They found that the denizens of Warcraft reacted believably: the economy and transport systems ground to a halt, some brave healers stepped in as “first responders”, others fled to rural areas to self-isolate.
Today these same researchers are working on the spread of the coronavirus Covid-19. They have noted its parallels with Corrupted Blood: it was spread through animals, exacerbated by the ability of carriers to travel vast distances quickly, and most seriously affected vulnerable members of the community.
The coronavirus has had a complex effect on the gaming industry. Developers are unable to work, leading to hardware delays and event cancellations. Yet playtime has rocketed up: gaming is an ideal quarantine activity. Games pass the time and provide social stimulation via online play. Nintendo and Xbox’s online services have experienced downtime due to server strain. PC gaming platform Steam had a record 20m players online on March 15 as the virus spread in the US.
There has also been new attention to games which take healthcare as a central mechanic. Two Point Hospital, ported to Switch last month, is a hospital management simulator and spiritual successor to 1997’s beloved Theme Hospital. Simulation fans will enjoy the strategic deployment of funds and optimising ward designs, but it’s the game’s zany humour that keeps you engaged, such as patients suffering from “pandemic” who need help with the saucepans stuck to their heads (though perhaps the 1997 game’s ailments — corrugated ankles, third-degree sideburns — were a shade wittier).
You can also get hands-on with the human body. In Trauma Center you play a surgeon using touch controls to slice and suture. Surgeon Simulator is sillier, challenging players to perform surgery while bumping around in the back of an ambulance or in a space station where your operating instruments float around in zero gravity. Meanwhile Level Ex creates serious games for doctors based on real cases, with special titles for anaesthesiologists, gastroenterologists, pulmonologists and cardiologists. More than half a million medical professionals play to have their virtual surgeries scored according to speed, accuracy, blood loss, tissue trauma and, presumably more importantly, patient survival.
In February ‘Plague Inc’ was removed from the Chinese app store, with the government citing ‘illegal content’
The current outbreak has seen a sharp increase in downloads of games specifically relating to viruses. A 2008 puzzle game about folding protein structures called Foldit has released an update asking players to help design an antiviral protein which blocks the tell-tale spiky geometry of Covid-19. The best solutions will be tested by the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design in Seattle, the first major city hit by the outbreak in America.
Earlier this year, a game from 2012 topped download charts in America and China. In Plague Inc., you control a pathogen seeking to wipe out humanity. In February the game was removed from the Chinese app store, with the government citing “illegal content”. This is unfortunate, as Plague Inc. has been widely praised by health agencies for the realism of its infection models and for raising awareness through entertainment. And while it may seem ghoulish to play at pandemics when this crisis is so real, these games give us back something that the coronavirus crisis has stripped from us so thoroughly: a sense of agency.