A brief history of disease in video games

From Far Cry 2 to World of Warcraft, what can we learn from virtual epidemics in a time of coronavirus?

Video games, as you’re probably sick of hearing, are the perfect distraction while hiding from a pandemic – exotic alternate realities in which death is fleeting, handshakes are non-taboo and the bog-roll flows like water.

I’ve been digging back through my own collection, and it turns out many video games are also swimming with disease. There’s Darkest Dungeon, a Lovecraftian almanac of mild-to-murderous ailments like The Yips”, and Plague Tale: Innocence, in which cherubic French children contend with rat hordes and hereditary curses. In the mobile game Pandemic you actually play a germ, trying to avoid detection as you ooze from continent to continent. Gore lovers may prefer Capcom’s Resident Evil series, with its city-killing zombie T‑virus. A new instalment is due next month – I dread to think how they’ll advertise that one.

The thing about many of these literal video game plagues, however, is that they’re essentially plot devices or set dressing. They don’t spread without permission, altering the very structure of society, nor do they speak to the chaotic possibilities of a medium where everything you see and hear is conjured up by code.

More intriguing – and troubling – are the games that portray viral” phenomena, teeing up systems that sow and replicate themselves to the point of escaping even the designer’s control. Among these games is Far Cry 2, a notoriously disorienting shooter set in postcolonial Africa. Your character catches malaria at the beginning of the story, and you’ll have to deal with fever spells as you battle soldiers and outlaws using rusty, misfiring weapons.

These fits of dizziness can be terrifying, but they are also predictably timed, occurring every half an hour or so. More troubling is the game’s infectious recreation of fire, which leaps hungrily from surface to surface in a landscape that is largely underbrush and deviously sprinkled with oil drums. Hoik something flammable into a jungle camp and odds are you’ll incinerate yourself along with your enemies.

The virality of fire is wonderfully oppressive in a war game like Far Cry. It’s less pleasant in a pastoral simulation like Minecraft, where players spend hundreds of hours piling up blocks of terrain material to create an enormous variety of structures, from factory farms to theme parks. Back in 2011, long before it became a billion-dollar success story, blazes in Minecraft would spread endlessly as long as there was something to burn. The game’s creators eventually imposed limits on the fire system, but many older Minecrafters still reminisce about the days when a settlement might go up in smoke because a lava pool somewhere had ignited a low-lying tree.

Fire, of course, doesn’t spread the way a virus does. Diseases like COVID-19 are both microbiological and social phenomena, transmitted according to the networks and hierarchies that determine resource access and how populations move about. The defining virtual incarnation of this process is the Corrupted Blood incident, an epidemic accidentally unleashed on the massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft by a designer’s oversight.

In 2005, developer Blizzard added an enemy to WoW that could inflict a lethal wasting disease, guaranteed to infect any player within spitting distance of the initial victim. The disease was, in theory, confined to said enemy’s lair: it was nullified by killing the monster or being killed by it. But Blizzard neglected to consider that struggling players could teleport back to a town at any point in the battle, bringing their Corrupted Blood along with them. The blight could also be passed on by non-humanoid creatures such as pets and mounts, who – unlike players – were asymptomatic.

Corrupted Blood

The result: within hours of the update in question, tens of thousands of player characters had perished, many in-game cities had become echoing boneyards, and Blizzard was obliged to take the entire game offline after trying and failing to impose a quarantine. The incident drew the interest of medical researchers: it was a unique opportunity to observe the spread of a virus without the associated bodycount.

The growth of an epidemic is shaped by wealth and privilege: less able to seclude themselves or seek medical help, the poorest inevitably bear the brunt. Similarly, WoWs plague was most dangerous to new players who hadn’t developed their characters enough to withstand its effects. Two epidemiologists, Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren, authored a paper on the real-world implications of Corrupted Blood in 2007. As reported by PCGamer, the pair are now part of the effort to contain the coronavirus.

Viral phenomena this cataclysmic are rare in games, but there’s a sense in which every game of a certain scale is heading in that direction. Game makers and players have long been in thrall to the dream of living, breathing” worlds: simulations you preside over but don’t entirely direct, their components bouncing together and evolving of their own accord.

At the micro level, this translates into a love of contagious knock-on effects, like Far Cry 2s rampaging blazes, or the cascading interactions of loose objects in games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Extolling a game’s capacity for such spontaneous outcomes is now part of the industry PR playbook. It’s a cliche, during hands-on demonstrations of games, for developers to enthuse that they’ve never seen that happen before”.

Six Ages

The creators of massively multiplayer games like WoW, meanwhile, have learned to inflict disaster on their worlds as ways of rekindling player enthusiasm and dramatising otherwise dry technical adjustments. Square Enix famously rebooted the ailing Final Fantasy 14 by smashing a moon into it. Blizzard treated the Corrupted Blood incident as a bug, to begin with, but a few years later, the studio would try to recreate it, releasing a relatively tame zombie plague into WoW to stoke anticipation for an expansion pack. The virus had become a viral marketing program.

But if many games portray and are party to our more self-destructive fixations, they can also reveal kinder, community-building impulses. Player reactions to the Corrupted Blood outbreak ran an interesting gamut. Less scrupulous adventurers sought to spread the infection, not in the name of herd immunity” – World of Warcraft characters do not have lymph glands – but for shits and giggles. Others, however, mobilised against it. Mighty healers offered their services at urban centres. Less resilient players tried to set up cordons, warning newcomers not to enter.

We might similarly take heart from single player games that are about negotiating social boundaries, finding the balance between trust and self-protection in an unstable world. With my friends all off playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons – a blissful island escape that had the good fortune to launch just before the UK went into lockdown – I’ve been seeking solace in Six Ages: Ride like the Wind, which casts you as chief of an Iron Age settlement in an unpredictable, storybook realm of festering clan politics and magical forces. Many of the game’s key events involve deciding whether to let strangers inside the walls – a relatable quandary, to say the least.

Video games are very often about watching a world burn, if not guiding and enjoying its downfall, and that spectacle is a source of powerful catharsis in difficult times. But they can also be evocative explorations of how society is maintained when a virus has turned our systems against us, and everybody feels like they’re under siege.

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