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November 25, 2005


Year of Wonders

A few months back I finished listening to Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. It's a novel about the Plague, the capital-P Plague that had eliminated a large portion of Europe in the Middle Ages, though this book isn't about that particular breakout of the plague¹. This book is about Bubonic Plague striking a small village, which decides to quarantine itself to prevent transmission to others. It's extraordinary in part because it is inspired by real events: there was a real village in England which undertook similar steps to halt the spread of infection. Though they knew little about the vector of the illness, they knew that fleeing in large numbers would only increase the suffering of others, and they took it upon themselves to prevent anyone from entering or leaving once the plague was identified.

It's really interesting, as a modern reader familiar with the basics of the transmission of this particular epidemic², to watch that play out in fiction. There is the visitor, an itinerant tailor, who comes from London and takes a room in the home of a local widow. There's the dead animal found by a couple of children -- who themselves take sick. There is the minister who brings them all together in prayer, perhaps causing more rapid transmission, but who compels them to quarantine the village, and thereby save countless others.

I think there's an interesting game or two in there, if you can get past the squeamishness. There's something thrilling about the discovery of a new type of disease, of the steps taken in identifying and isolating it, in tracking down the vectors of transmission -- it's why books like The Hot Zone or And the Band Played On³ or The Coming Plague find wide readerships. So, a game in which you are tracking down viral or bacterial vectors sounds like it'd be pretty cool.

The flip side seems even more interesting, though. I can imagine a game in which you're scored on how well you can tailor a disease vector to the characteristics of a disease and population. The Plague spread like wildfire because it was unleashed on a population with poor hygiene, inadequate sewage treatment, and an enormous rat problem; finding the right analogue in a particular population seems like an interesting sort of challenge, sort of a Sim-Plague. Such a game could even have a real-world benefit; designing diseases and vectors is a practical intellectual exercise for someone about to start work as an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control.4

I can't post this without at least mentioning a couple of the most interesting in-game diseases.

In 2000, players of The Sims who installed a guinea pig in its cage discovered a strange feature: if you didn't clean the pet's cage before you played with it, your Sim might get bitten and ultimately die of "Guinea Pig Disease", although there were in-game mechanisms to avoid that fate. It was a little bit too much for some players, however, who were devastated to see Sims who had been lovingly nurtured for hours and hours catch colds and die, often spreading the "virus" to other Sims.

More recent and in many ways more interesting was the recent World of Warcraft Corrupted Blood epidemic. While The Sims' guinea pig disease was directly engineered to have exactly the effects it did, the Corrupted Blood plague was a side-effect of existing game systems, just like a real epidemic. In this case, the disease was a highly effective damage-over-time effect which was usually quickly fatal to those who contracted it from a high-level monster. However, strong players with enough health potions could use hearthstones to return themselves quickly to cities and spread the disease quickly to a dense network of players and NPCs, making it a virtual disease well-tailored to its hosts. If that's not a case of art imitating life, I'm not sure what else qualifies.

See you all next Tuesday for a little treatise on games and awards.

¹Though, if you're looking for a novel about that particular incident, I can wholeheartedly recommend Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, which received both the Hugo and the Nebula in the year in which it appeared, if I remember correctly. (back)
²Fleas, borne primarily by rats, but which then crossed over to other animals and eventually, to the human population. (back)
³Admittedly, this one covered a lot about the politics as well... (back)
4 I admit to already having some ideas here which might be a little too twisted for a public already thinking there's something wrong with us violent gamers. I can imagine detecting a particular level of efficacy on the part of the player and rewarding him with newspaper headlines, news reports, etc. On the other hand, I can also imagine such a game making a statement, perhaps playing out some of the political scenarios which accompanied real-world epidemics like HIV, which was not the Reagan administration's finest hour, if it had one. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at November 25, 2005 10:30 PM