Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sensationalist: Assessing Digital Diseases

This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries.

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Assessing Digital Diseases.

I mentioned my illogical fear of diseases at the beginning of this article, but as a child it was even worse. Outbreak gave me nightmares for weeks and I absolutely refused to touch my brother's copy of Hot Zone. Contagions are absolutely terrifying. They cannot be easily fought, death may come suddenly and painfully, and people you know and love can become carriers. I find few places as conceptually frightening as quarantine zones. At least games often give me something to shoot, necromorphs, the flood, zombies, etc., physical and vulnerable embodiments of disease.

I intentionally left out tactile games, some of which capture the paranoia and desperation of an epidemic. Pandemic, which I have discussed before, pits up to four players against a host of rapidly proliferating diseases. Cities on the game board can "hot zone," spreading the plague to neighboring cities, which can cause chain reactions. The cooperative game is quite difficult, and victory often comes in a moment of complete panic and mental exhaustion. The On The Brink expansion adds disease mutations, virulent strains, and even a bio-terrorist into the mix, which in combination can wreak havoc on one's sense of safety and control, a rare and delightful treat.

The aptly named Panic Station, a board game to be released later this year, evokes the same sense of paranoia, disgust, and fear created by Jon Carpenter's The Thing (probably my favorite horror film). Set in the confines of an alien occupied military base, you and your team must arm yourselves with flamethrower fuel, then seek out and destroy the hive. However, one of your teammates is a host for the alien. Even worse, this enemy menace can infect your entire crew. Before long, the sense of paranoia and isolation that comes with survival in a hot zone becomes overwhelming.

While I have yet to play Panic Station, it and a few board games like it, including Pandemic, masterfully play with the pop culture horror of disease, manifestations of the intangible real-world fears we so long to fight.

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