The old adage is that life imitates art, but, of course, the reverse is also true. The things we create in our lives are just a reflection of the world we see around us. For some game developers, this can result in moments of intense peace or beauty; take Stardew Valley’s relaxing farming life or Firewatch’s focus on nature as just two examples. For others, this means creating games that explore some of the darkest aspects of ourselves. Titles like Senua’s Sacrifice and The Evil Within take themes of mental illness and intense loss and stretch them over the framework of an interactive experience.
These examples highlight non-specific, general human experiences. Some games, however, go further than that and focus on something much more tangible: actual real-world events. And, because the nature of games requires there to be some form of conflict to act as a goal to work against, these real-world events are often of the more negative variety. Take, for example, one of the most successful game franchises of all time: Call of Duty made its name by enabling players to fight through some of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th Century.
There appears, however, to be a line drawn on what is acceptable to use as the basis for a game. Unfortunately, judging just where that line is turns out to be incredibly difficult. Let’s look at what we’ve got, and how the rise of Covid-19 has impacted things.
Games that feature real conflicts, such as the World Wars, are no strangers to negative press. Some pundits have spent years criticising them for monetising a horrific period in history. A common defence, however, is that the events depicted are long since passed. This doesn’t negate their horror, certainly, but it creates a distance that helps to sanitise it. No one is going to argue that World War I wasn’t horrific, but it also can’t be suggested that a game set within it runs the risk of causing personal offence or trauma – the last known veteran of the war died in 2012.
Later instalments of the Call of Duty series did move to a much more modern setting and correspondingly picked up modern-day conflicts. In such games, however, care seems to have been taken not to depict actual events or battles. The Modern Warfare games tend to place their stories in unnamed or fictional countries in the Middle East that are evocative of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan without drawing direct parallels. Over time the series developed its own internal narrative around a Russian terrorist who, again, had no basis in reality (although it is worth noting that the Modern Warfare games shouldered their own criticisms for how they portrayed Russian soldiers and the adaptation of a real-world event from the Gulf War).
Likewise, the Battlefield series started with older, real conflicts, then moved onto modern, fictional wars. More recently they’ve moved back towards reality with Battlefield 1 and Battlefield V, but these are set in World War I and World War II respectively.
The general trend in mainstream FPS games, then, appears to be that they can feature real events, but only ones that can be vaguely classed as ‘historical’. Real-world conflicts happening in the present day can only be alluded to with similar but made up settings.
But how does that translate into other genres of gaming? And how much time has to pass before an event can be considered historical? Call of Duty and Battlefield appear to have decided that present-day events are off the table. The same can’t be said for the growing corner of the market focused on pandemic simulators.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge influence on the gaming industry. Primarily that has meant game development becoming delayed due to work-at-home orders and office closures, but it has also impacted the nature of the games we play. One of the first signs of this was early last year, when the long-running pandemic simulator Plague Inc. saw a huge bump in numbers. The increase was so great, the creators had to warn people off from using the game as a guide to their real-life actions. Given the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic, it was only a matter of time before it found its way into a specially developed game title.
And, despite the trend set by FPS games, it turned out to be barely any time at all. By May 2020, the highly controversial Coronavirus Attack had hit Steam shelves, barely three months after lockdown orders started rolling in across the world. Besides the sensitive topic, the game saw a lot of backlash for racial undertones and political incorrectness. It was immediately banned in China and since then, its Steam page has been deleted entirely. Less controversial alternatives followed Coronavirus Attack’s lead, including titles like Corona Simulator and even a board game from Germany.
While Coronavirus Attack was rapidly brushed under the rug by almost everyone, many other Covid-19 games have soldiered on. Some have even seen substantial success in a crowded market. It is clear that consumers aren’t shy about investing in games centred on a pandemic that has, to date, claimed the lives of nearly 4.5 million people around the world. So, why would someone want to play a game that focuses on such a dark – and ongoing – moment in history?
Why Do People Buy These Games?
For one, lockdown orders and time off work has led to an unprecedented demand for in-house entertainment. Video games played a major role, with the NPD group reporting that consumers spent $10.86 billion on games in the first three months of 2020 alone. In such an environment, all game genres are sure to see at least a bit of a boost.
However, while that could explain sales, it doesn’t get to the heart of why Covid-focused games get developed in the first place. A lot of time and money has to go into making a game. Developers, particularly the smaller teams typically producing this content, aren’t going to waste resources on something that won’t sell. So, why are players interested in a coronavirus game when the reality of a pandemic has been all but inescapable in real life?
One contributing factor is that news about the pandemic has been, well, inescapable. This might sound contradictory, but bear with me. Covid-19 has been a uniquely trying experience for a lot of people, both mentally and physically. In such a situation, it’s easy to want to distance yourself from the truth of it. A game that simulates the pandemic on a global scale introduces a distance between the player and the reality of their actions. Simulation games very rarely give you information on an individual level; instead, entire countries are grouped into a sort of amorphous whole that makes it much easier to ignore a single person’s situation. It can also offer an easier way to compartmentalise and understand broad, complicated issues.
The genre also plays into a person’s pride. Many of these simulation games put you at the helm of governmental responses to Covid-19. Players are given total control over a country and, thus, the opportunity to ‘do it better’. The simulations are, by necessity, never going to capture the scale of real-world governments, but they can feel close to it. If you’re someone who has disagreed with the way a country has handled the pandemic, something like The Corona Game gives you the opportunity to ‘prove’ that your way would have been a better call.
It’s clearly inaccurate to claim that people play these games to make light of a serious issue. The same is true when people argue that playing games like Call of Duty correlates to increased violence. There are many reasons why someone might play a game that centres on something that could be considered distasteful. Not least of them is that in many cases, the game is simply fun.
That being said, just because there is a market out there for a certain type of content, it doesn’t always mean that content should be produced.
The Ethics of Playing a Covid-19 Simulator
It’s not really hard to see why some people may take issue with games like these being on the market. At the end of the day, the developers are trying to make a profit off of a humanitarian crisis. It might be nothing new, but there’s an understandable ethical question at the heart of the matter.
So, is it ethical to buy a game about coronavirus? Or perhaps the better question is: Is it too soon to be playing a game about the ongoing pandemic?
To a certain extent, that has to be a question that each player asks of themselves; everyone is going to have a different tolerance to what they deem acceptable. In extreme cases, like that of Coronavirus Attacks, the onus is on a governing body – be it the government itself or something as simple as the platform hosting the game – to judge when something has gone too far and actively prevent sales. That’s largely how the game’s industry has always handled sensitive content, and coronavirus games are no exception.
The concern then is not necessarily the acceptability of these games, but is instead the harm they may cause. As the developers of Plague Inc. warned, there is a risk that some players will see such simulations as a guide on how to act in the real world. In some ways this risk is greater now than it was a year ago; many governments have dispensed with legal restrictions, while infection rates are increasing once more. The truth of it is that no matter how advanced the simulation, it obviously can’t ever match up to reality; no model is ever going to be able to account for the actions and choices of nearly eight billion people.
Treating a game like Corona Simulator as a guide to how countries should actually have handled the pandemic is clearly going to be flawed. Doing so runs the risk of, at minimum, coming to an incorrect conclusion about a government’s actions and, at worst, putting yourself and others at risk through irresponsible behaviour.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Ultimately, if players understand the definition between reality and a game, then there is a limited amount of harm these titles can do. Yes, arguably the developers are making money on the back of a devastating event, but they’re not causing active damage. The games themselves are not contributing to the gravity of the situation.
On the contrary, some developers are doing everything they can to help. The team behind the aforementioned Corona Simulator has pledged to donate 20% of the game’s revenue to the WHO Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, for instance. Beyond the financial implications, new content has also been a blessing to people trapped at home under lockdown; it would be irresponsible to discount the benefit video games can provide to someone’s mental health during isolation. Such games may also help people to understand the scale of the problem and perhaps offer new avenues of thinking about it.
There is always a risk to making light of a real, serious problem, but that’s not typically what coronavirus games are trying to do. They’re there to be enjoyed by the people who want to play them, and they’re easy to ignore for anyone to whom the pandemic is still a little too close. In the end, it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves. Just don’t assume that anything that happens in a game will work in the real world.