Disease Games Are Doing It Wrong


We all get sick at some point in our lives, sometimes worse than any other time, often leading to death. Many developers have attempted to make games that comically-emulate the all-too-real wars between bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing pathogens with the human race. But I want to argue that this is the wrong approach to such games, often making them rigid, linear, and fairly-easily manipulated to be winnable if certain choices are made or routes taken.

Organic is the word that describes the better version of them. What does organic mean? Here, I mean non-linear and unstructured. This, in my opinion, is what most disease-focused video games are not. As a matter of fact, most disease games center around something to do with killing or making more zombies.

Few games, like the computer browser-based game Pandemic, make the player try to infect as many hosts as effectively as possible before humans make a vaccine or other treatment against the player pathogen. Even fewer, if any at all, set the player the task of developing a treatment or vaccine to a pathogen-borne disease.


So why is that? Are games limited in their ability to be truly “organic” by modern technology? Let me explain what I mean by “organic” with a specific example of a open-world-based game concept I’ve been brewing up in my head for quite some time.

The first scene of my hypothetical game starts with a person coughing up a storm in the middle of a busy train station. If you don’t already know, while you’re contagious with a disease, the pathogen causing it can be transported to another person by coughing out air droplets that each contain several hundreds or even thousands of pathogen cells.

When healthy people inhale at least one of the air droplets, the pathogen is now in their bodies and will cause disease (well, unless someone is naturally immune to the pathogen, in which case they won’t get sick, like Ellie, who’s immune to the pathogenic Cordyceps fungus species in The Last of Us).


Here’s the kicker of the game: the pathogen the player chooses to control via a herd-like consciousness is able to manipulate, among many other things, when and where the sick person coughs. So, the train station setting is the perfect locale to quickly and effectively maximize disease transmission because of the close-quarters nature of such an area.

Following pathogen transmission to another person, the player can still be alerted to new opportunities to directly control activities in the game world. I should mention that while a player is controlling the pathogens’ perspective and actions from a single infected person, the game is also simultaneously monitoring new infections in real-time (although the processing power needed to do so might be pushing it for practical purposes).

All newly-available and in-progress infections can be accessed and reviewed by the player in a separate window/menu, allowing for quick and easy transitions between diseased hosts (remember that the pathogen has a herd-like consciousness, so that’s how and why the separate window concept works and makes sense). Fans will recognize a similarity between this separate window concept and the naval campaign in Assassin’s Creed 3, Black Flag, and Rogue.


Now, how does the player get to control the mode of infection, mortality rate, and other variables? In another separate window/menu, of course! From coughing to bodily fluids to animal-host transitions, the possibilities for mode of infection are limited only to what can be programmed (which is basically what is able to be accommodated by modern technology).

The player patience, strategy, and pathogen characteristics to avoid human vaccine/treatment development are paramount to success. Being patient enough to passively observe vital details occurring in real-time is needed to effectively delegate Darwinian Skill Points (DSPs) to traits and characteristics/symptoms that increase virulence, disease efficacy, infectivity, and mutation frequency, the latter being absolutely critical to avoiding susceptibility to human vaccines and treatments.

And yes, ***drum-roll please*** you can even be a pathogen that turns people into zombies, if you want to.


As somewhat of a cheat, players can also upgrade their pathogen to be able to listen to conversations of research scientists and make adjustments to avoid treatment susceptibility accordingly.

But everything I’ve talked about so far is for the pathogen only: what about the humans?

Instead of being able to choose the pathogen you fight against, the pathogen will be randomly generated and controlled via the same options as above but with artificial intelligence.

It can all start with a cough, or a sniffle, or an itch, or a multitude of other symptoms. Then people start realizing that the disease the world faces is capable of being, and might already be depending on the in-game real-time variables, a pandemic.

To simplify having to browse among the billions of people that a pathogen infects, filters can be applied to only display certain categories of people, such as regular people, wealthy people, and research scientists.

News reports detailing the real-time condition of the world as the pandemic progresses can be displayed by any person that the player chooses to see the perspective of. Depending on the person being controlled, players can even experience real-time in-game events, such as being assaulted by marauders and scavengers or getting into shootouts with law enforcement as criminals taking advantage of the panic and discord. Death is all-too-possible for any person that players choose to control, and this includes dying because of the very pathogen that the game is controlling via A.I., if the chaos doesn’t get to that person first.

A police officer runs near other officers taking position during a shootout with traffickers during an operation at Vila Cruzeiro slum in Rio de Janeiro

Probably the most interesting and impactful role that players can take should they choose to is controlling research scientists. Through studying the pathogen and its effects on diseased hosts, including human patients, players can learn what the pathogen is susceptible to. Players can then attempt to “beat” it to the punch and develop treatments against it before it develops resistance to the treatment planned due to the A.I.-controlled eavesdropping Darwinian Skill upgrade discussed earlier.

The point of the human side is to prevent the pathogen goal: killing all or at least most life on Earth. Failure is absolutely possible and probable, since there would be no difficulty level in my hypothetical game. But, like living life, attempts must be made nonetheless, regardless of whether they lead to success or failure.

Finally, why not include a multiplayer (even if we are Only Single Player)? All single-player campaign options are included in it, except that the “enemy” of either of the two factions you choose is now controlled by an actual person, and is thus much more difficult to play against than imperfect programmed computer patterns.


So, what do you think? Compared to other disease-based games, is this too complicated? Too “organic?” Not “organic” enough? Sound off in the comments below!

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