In Defence Of Zombie Games

In Defence Of Zombie Games

Even in video game terms, this week has been chock full of zombie news. Sony and Microsoft, the dueling juggernauts of the console market, both offered up fresh and appropriately gory details about their respective (and exclusive) open-world games about killing the living dead — H1Z1 and State of Decay.

Personally, I’m excited for both games. And there are plenty of other people who are too. Why else would companies of this size risk investing so much to make these things?

Judging by a lot of the chatter I’ve seen around our coverage, however, I get the sense that there are also a lot of gamers out there who are feeling fatigued by the prospect of spending another console generation shooting at rotting faces. One comment on my H1Z1 post summed up this sentiment nicely: “I’m so done with zombie games. There’s been way too many in the last couple of years.”

I responded by asking: when have there not been “way too many” zombie games? Like Nazis, space aliens, and terrorists, zombies are the kind of easy fodder developers can always go back to.

Is that really such a bad thing? A few weeks ago, I would have unquestionably said yes. And then I would have launched into an argument about how the continued reliance on uninspired motifs saps away time and money from developing games like Papo & Yo or Papers, Please the kinds of deeply personal, profound works of art I’d like to see get more and more attention from the upper-most echelons of the mainstream video game industry.

In Defence Of Zombie Games

But then I snuck away from work for a few hours to sit in on the Games for Change conference that was taking place at New York University throughout the week of April 25th. One talk I saw there made me appreciate zombies in a whole new way.

The speaker was Mary Flanagan, an academic and game designer who’s renowned amongst the intellectual class that attends a conference like Games for Change. Her talk — ambiguously titled “Games for Change 2.0” — centered on her frustration with the way that games made for educational or socially progressive causes often fail to demonstrate the kind of meaningful, actionable outcomes that their creators claim to aim for.

“We need evidence of change actually happening,” she said at the outset. Game developers need to start applying data-rich psychologically-driven reasoning into every part of the design process.

She spelled out numerous ways that this has already been implemented in her own work and that of her colleagues for games made to be educational or just plain entertaining. But a lot of it, she went on to say, just comes down to framing — how the game is packaged and presented to its players.

This is where the zombies come in. Towards the end of her talk, Flanagan brought up Pox, a strategy board game that her company Tiltfactor made to help people “understand group immunization and the need to vaccinate.”

The team at Tiltfactor conducted a study with the game where they designed three different versions: a physical board game, a zombie-themed variant, and a digital version for the iPad. They had participants in the study play the three versions and then measured for two results: how players were valuing vaccination and the level of “systems thinking performance” about immunization.

She pulled up a bar chart demonstrating the results for all three versions. The biggest jump by far came when they measured the level of retention and overall awareness between subjects who had played the board game (which was very high) and the digital version (which was much, much lower). But the more surprising result, she said, came when they saw that the zombie-themed version of the game actually produced the best results of the three.

“Is anybody surprised about the zombies?” She asked, visibly amused. “I didn’t really think people would care about being vaccinated against zombies. Check again!”

Zombies are fun and all, and they certainly help liven up a theory-heavy series of talks. But what’s the real takeaway here? On one fundamental level, Flanagan said, the zombified version of Pox showed her that all of the ideal outcomes that she and the rest of Tiltfactor aim for in their work shot up dramatically once they introduced a “fictional world” to a piece of work that would otherwise have remained entirely abstract.

But speaking more generally, Flanagan said, examples like Zombie Pox made her reconsider how a progressively-minded game “does better work the less it looks like a game for change.”

In Defence Of Zombie Games

“How does a game for change not look like a game for change?” she asked shortly before diving into the Pox part of her talk. Oftentimes, she suggested, a game works best when the “message of responsibility” is delivered at some discrete, subconscious level.

It’s easy to see how an educational title like Pox or any of the other so-called “serious games” can be used to deliver a message in one way or another. And if livening up an educational game with the living dead helps deliver an important message to more people, then I’m all for it. But one could still make the argument that Flanagan was only really advocating poaching some ideas from big-budget entertainment titles to strengthen more substantive or socially progressive projects than those.

The education-through-zombification doesn’t have to stop there, though. If H1Z1 or State of Decay are truly yawn-inducing, than that’s their problem. Two of the best mainstream games I’ve played in recent memory are TellTale’s moving episodic adventure The Walking Dead and Naughty Dog’s stunning tour-de-force The Last of Us.

Both feature zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. Both are also incredibly fun in their own unique ways. And, most importantly for my point here, both have also won heaps of well-deserved praise for courageously broaching topics like racism and sexual identity.

Could they tackle the same issues with a few less zombies involved? Sure. But killing lots of zombies (or at least a few, in The Walking Dead’s case) helped make both of them more palatable. Because, I mean, fighting zombies always makes the bitterness of a painful emotional experience an easier pill to swallow.

Let’s keep having zombies in our games, I say. Heck, let’s even have more zombie games, because all that rotting flesh is sure going to look pretty on the PS4 and Xbox One. All I ask is that the games themselves not be quite as braindead as their subject matter.


  • The problem is that all zombie games are just the same thing. See how many zombies you can kill. I don’t really see how people can keep killing thousands and thousands of zombies over and over again with no change (maybe they have a lot of pent up rage and pretend the zombies are people they know).

    I played Dead Rising 1 and 2 but I spend most of my time doing the missions. I really only killed zombies that were in the way. I played through Left 4 Dead 1 once, but that was mainly because I don’t have anybody to play that with (and I protested getting Left 4 Dead 2). But something changed at the start of last year when I played Dead Island. After spending a hour killing zombies and getting nowhere I realised I never liked zombie games and stopped playing.

    Although recently I managed to knock State of Decay out in a weekend. I actually liked that game because killing zombies wasn’t the aim of the game, it was treating them like an actual threat and surviving, spending your time and resources to survive longer. It was much closer to the game I wanted and the critical thinking I’ve been missing from games that I have only gotten from Dark Souls. It’s also why I disliked Bioshock because it came off as a game requiring critical thinking but I was so full of bullets, money and candy I never had to think. It’s why I managed to beat State of Decay without losing a single survivor, because I was smart and didn’t try to run down every zombie horde I came across.

    Oddly enough I had a dream the other day about a new zombie game. Think of something like Sim City, The Sims, Theme Hospital, Dungeon Keeper, etc. except it’s a settlement of survivors in a zombie apocalypse where the aim isn’t to kill them all but manage resources and your survivors attitudes.

    • All zombie games are about killing zombie, all First Person Shooter is about shooting things in first person mode, all pokemon games are about pokemon, all platformers are about platforming. What are you smoking?

      Dead Rising I kill zombie to level up and ignore them once I’m max level. I enjoyed Left 4 Dead because I had friend to play with during weekend LAN parties and it was great fun especially everyone jumping to the boat to escape while someone is getting pounced by Tank as a decoy. Dead Island was boring as hell even with friends playing.

      I think I should pick up State of Decay soon after I finish Child of Light and Dark Souls 2 first playthrough.

      I actually had not enough bullets all the time in Bioshock and no money as well. Maybe because I play on a higher difficulty.

      Your dream is a real game, I played before a survivor zombie type game that starts in a settlement with limited resources, you have to scavenge area nearby for resources/survivor with the chance of running into zombie and losing survivor during the conflict. Rather epic until I accidentally turn on the siren for a nearby airbase to escape and zombie horde came and game over.

    • Ever tried Day Z?
      H1Z1 also looks to be about more then just killing zombies

  • ZombiU is my favourite zombie game.

    Though that said I’m struggling to actually think of any other zombie game I’ve played now 😛

  • Only zombie game i play is dayz, and even then i mosty run from them.becuae i dont wany to waste ammo.
    anynother zombie games annoy me.

  • Sim Zombie? Sweet!

    Uhh…that was supposed to be in reply to Neo Kaiser.

  • The fact that they have waited this long to jump on the bandwagon just shows how out of touch they are with their customers interests.

  • There’s no such thing as a zombie game, there are just games that happen to have zombies in them. The Walking Dead, Zombie Shooter, Plants vs. Zombies, Dead Rising and Dead Island are all completely different games. Zombies are just a type of enemy, and just like robots, aliens, soldiers, mutants, terrorists and turtles, they’ve been used a lot, but they’re fun to shoot, and as long as the game is good it doesn’t really matter.

  • Dayz isnt even really about the zombies.
    Its a FPS, set in a Free For All Deathmatch map with Zombies thrown in for fun. Also, fighting zombies in dayz is a pain in the ass. Half the time my melee weapons dont hit and the guns cause way too many problems with noice.
    Plus god forbid I can play the game for longer then 40 minutes without a sniper picking me off. Its the buggies game i have played to date. It just isnt a real zombie game in my opinion.
    It also is a game thats setup in a way that new comers have little chance of getting much out of it.
    Its a very over rated game.

  • @neo_kaiser

    its basically what you described but as a browser based MMO of sorts, lots of fun, sorta played in real time, focus isnt on zombie kills, its on staying alive for as long as possible, because you WILL die its just a matter of when.

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