Zombie Games Infected My Brain!

The psychological effects of cultural zombification, and the still-untilled fields in video games.

By: Rowan Kaiser

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Horror Life


Okay. The first thing we need to do is to block off the alley leading into the apartment complex. This may be a little tough, and perhaps we should move the cars out of the driveway first, because that’ll block it off. But if we get a couple cars there, and use furniture and blocks to fill in the gaps, that’ll be the one open entrance into the apartment complex shut down. Zombies sure as hell aren’t getting through the bars in the front, but we can see–and kill–them through it. Perfect.


We’ve also got a nice flat set of roofs for collecting rainwater and maintaining a sentry. The laundry and bike storage rooms, on the first and second floors, should be great as panic rooms. The apartments themselves have those big windows in the front, so I’d recommend we all move to the second or even third story. We can maybe block the stairwells with bikes or something, so we can get down but zombies will have a hard time getting up. We should check the pool to see if it’s chlorinated. If not, that’ll make surviving the first few weeks a lot easier. Obviously we should turn the little park-thingy between the two halves of the building into a community garden. That’s the only way we’ll be able to sustain ourselves. If it seems like we’re going to be here for the long haul, maybe we should break apart the driveway for more arable land.


Getting this place locked down takes priority, but once that’s done, we’re going to need to scout and acquire supplies. The tool library just across the way should provide weapons, and the pawn shop across from that could have guns. From there, we should hit the local pharmacy for medicine and food. After that we’ll have to head a few blocks away to the Trader Joe’s and Safeway for canned goods. The streets along the way are wide, making ambushes less likely. Also, wouldn’t it be cool if we rode bikes and had lances to ride down zombies? I always wanted to do that.


What if I’m doing this all wrong? What if holing up in the apartment complex, as defensible as it appears, is the wrong way of doing things? Shit, what if we can’t block off the back driveway and it’s never defensible? What if climate change means that it doesn’t rain enough?  Is it a waste of resources for me to try to save my cat? Would the zombie apocalypse force me to get rid of my kitten, knowing that he’d likely be eaten? SHIT SHIT SHIT. Okay, maybe the country would be safer? WHY CAN’T I SLEEP? WHY AM I STILL THINKING ABOUT PLANS FOR AN IMAGINARY ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE? THIS IS LITERALLY INSANE.


No, seriously, why I am thinking about this? Sure, I was playing Dead Island before I went to bed, but it’s one of half of dozen zombie games and media I’ve consumed before bed recently. Except….


Except that Dead Island is a role-playing game. Does that change things? Does that explain why it, and not The Walking Dead game, The Walking Dead show, Left 4 Dead 2, or 28 Days Later got under the skin of my brain so well? Even though all of these might be better than Dead Island?

Here’s the thing about the zombie apocalypse: it’s intense because it requires both long-term planning and short-term effectiveness. You need to make sure you have weapons, safe spaces, and supplies to survive. But you also can’t fuck up, even for a second, and let one of them bite you or kill you. Most zombie games are about the here-and-now. Sure, The Walking Dead gives you choices that may have long-term effects, but you know they’re only partial long-term effects. Regardless of what you choose, what your strategy is, you’ll still be able to finish The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, the biggest choices in Left 4 Dead 2 are “should I choose a shotgun, assault rifle, or sniper rifle for this next level?” The characters in the game are making decisions about their plans, but you’re not involved in those.

It’s not like Dead Island gives you much freedom in those plans. Sure, practically the first thing you do in the game is take over a defensible lifeguard station for your initial companions, then do quests to help them. But you have no choice in these long-term plans. You don’t actually sacrifice or gain resources that will lead to the failure or success of the station as a stronghold. It does whatever the plot requires, just like everything in The Walking Dead or Left 4 Dead.

But there’s one crucial difference–your weapons. In Dead Island, your weapons are everything. Sure, there’s a limited role-playing mechanic where you go up in level and increase some skills, but since the enemy zombies increase in difficulty to match, that’s not the critical difference. But Dead Island’s variety of weapons, weapons that break, give it long term planning of a very specific and narrow sort. Outside of combat, you have to worry about which weapons are worth keeping and which are worth selling or dropping? Which are worth the increasingly expensive upgrades or the increasingly exotic modifications? Which ones become long-term parts of your rotation, and which do you use for the different styles of enemies? Even in combat, you have to pay attention to weapon degradation almost as much as your own health. A broken weapon not only stops doing significant damage, but it also costs much much more to repair, meaning that if you stop paying attention you could lose even more money than if you “die”.

Sure, this can be annoying, but that annoyance works for me. Obviously it works for me, it’s part of how the game gave me insomnia planning for something that’s literally impossible. It means there’s a constant worry, a constant nagging feeling that something could be better. You can never get comfortable with your progress in Dead Island. You could be making the wrong decisions. This is something that a game needs to have in order to burrow into my psyche. XCOM has it–there’s always a tactical maneuver that could have gone better, or a squaddie whose new level will make her nigh-invincible. In Football Manager it’s the certainly that your next new player will put your team over the top.

But there’s something about zombies that gives them extra power. Their place in popular culture is something long-dissected by critics of all different stripes (here’s critic Matt Zoller Seitz on how varied and impressive zombie films are, compared to superhero films, to take a quick example). They feed on so many different anxieties–infection and pandemic, corruption of the body, lack of control, the mind/body dichotomy, ethics without government, the breakdown of society, apocalypse, and so on, in addition to the more straightforward survival anxieties.

Which all makes me wonder: if Dead Island, a game with only slightly more anxiety-referencing mechanics than most of the straightforward action games can get into my psyche, then where are the zombie strategy games? Where are the games where the zombie pandemic is simulated using computer models, and you have to gather the survivors, use and teach them skills, and hope that they lost…forever? Until the pandemic passes? Is cured? How about XCOM if the Chryssalids weren’t contained and took over a major population center? Emergent, transparent, strategic gameplay could create a zombie masterpiece. It could make the game that took over my brain, where I have to organize for the future while maintaining life in the present. If we’re gonna stick zombies in everything, let’s start sticking them in everything. Really put the screws to those anxieties. I didn’t think I’d become a zombie obsessive, but, well, dammit Dead Island…


I’m assuming I’m going to take charge here. I think I’m pretty handy in stressful situations. I might not be, though. I might just talk the talk. What if the stress drives me insane? What if I just never have the chance to be trusted as a leader because I’m not the most successful zombie-killer? I’ve never fired a gun, and I’m not in super great physical shape. I’ll just sit on the sidelines until I’m kicked out with a gun and a day’s worth of food. My inflated sense of my own self-importance will literally get me killed, and won’t that be a way to go. Or maybe zombies’ll bring out the best in me and my neighbors. Maybe we’ll be……..

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Horror Life

About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.

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