303: How Games Get Zombies Wrong

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I see the point being made, and agree. It be nice to see someone make a civilization type game that takes place in the zombie apocalypse. But one thin I do disagree with is that you can survive a zombie apocalypse, but I agree that "Shooting them with a gun" is not the right way.

Or read All Flesh Must be Eaten and its various supplements to get different ideas, both about zombies and possible long term survival scenarios.

Have to decide whether the zombies are supernatural or 'scientific' (infected) as there is a BIG difference in survival chances, spread etc.

(That cracked article mixes both 'scientific' disease based zombies and supernatural zombies and then cherry picks a solution. The majority of it's solutions/reasoning don't work with supernatural zombies because they are animated by plot-hole-filler magic, nor do they work with 'scientific' infected as they are still alive and have a living persons biological responses).

I am reminded of the church event in Left 4 Dead's Death Toll campaign, where another "survivor" makes trouble for the group by calling the zombie hordes.

negative reinforcement is when you take away a bad stimulus in response to desired behavior.
Shocking someone in response to undesired behavior is a positive deterrent.

I remember a game where people had the cure, so the game was about changing as many of the other side as possible. You'd change if you were bit or shot by the opposing side, and you could only take a limited number of transformations before you body gave out from the stress.

I think the article misses or at least glosses over something in the "why are Zombies scary" section.

Zombies are about subversion.

Zombies are like a form of really aggressive cancer: Just as cancer subverts healthy cells and corrupts their normal function, so, too, do zombies subvert healthy humans. It might be with a bite or a scratch, or maybe it's by dint of death itself, so that when one's demise comes it never truly comes. This is the subversion of sickness, of disease. Zombies are scary in the way that Ebola or HIV are scary. Zombies are the black plague of monsters - get too close, drop your guard, and they will do more than just kill you.They will infect you.

Yes, but there's more. This trait is typical of Vampires and Werewolves in fantasy yet I don't think those are as scary as a Zombie; they may be more threatening one on one, but they lack something zombies have (or more, they have something zombies don't). Vampires and Werewolves are predators and like all those that hunt and prey on others, they have at least a trace of rationality. Zombies don't - they lack everything that characterises other animals and are so alien that they are totally unrelatable.
It is more than what they do to you, individually, but how they act. They are absolute in their aim - they simply wish to feed and by extension, propagate. They go about this with such zeal and single-mindedness that any attempt to stop them seems futile (and indeed, this is the premise of all zombie fiction).
They, collectively, are a disease themselves. Their actions are akin to some of the most basic lifeforms on Earth; they're a virus; an incredibly virulent affliction that will destroy their host organism - its own environment.
It's this that is at the core of the zombie menace.

That's something I think video games do currently capture, but not fully. Certainly zombies are depicted as mindless and never ending.
But yes, a lot of games do merely use them as though they were any other foe.

I've had a thought:
Imagine Left 4 Dead, but without the athletic marathon runners for aggressors; replaced by the old fashioned slow moving, iconic antagonist of the zombie genre.
Then imagine that it only took the one hit to cause you to turn; that you couldn't even afford to let one zombie bite or even successfully lay a scratch on you.
Suddenly the game becomes a lot more foreboding; entering tighter spaces, even opening a door becomes a risky but necessary endeavor; you can't hold off the zombie hordes staying in one place forever.

That wouldn't capture everything, but I think it would be an improvement over a lot of what we see now. It's hard to do much more whilst staying in that co-op format.

I have the feeling that Dead Rising is getting this right. Characters who are bitten usually become zombies, and the horde is never put down (rather, it is contained). When an outbreak occurs, people run and hide, except for Frank and Chuck, who have some serious balls.

Chuck, I'll never be one to try and argue that Left 4 Dead games aren't fun; as someone who lost many hours to those particular digital diversions, I'd be lying through the teeth I used to have before the Witch ripped them out.

That said, I've long thought the points from your article are exactly what makes zombie fiction compelling; it's not the zombies, it's the people (as The Walking Dead so brilliantly illustrates). And a huge part of the terror is derived from the fact that the zombies used to BE people, and this could happen to you, too. When I initially heard about L4D, the first question I asked my friends was, "How are they going to deal with the player characters being infected?" It's such an integral part of the zombie mythos, I never imagined the answer would be "They're going to ignore it completely, you chump."

Then again, as you pointed out, it's still an awesome series. Thanks for a great article.



Thorndike (1874-1949), when sticking cats in escapable cages, noticed that the cats were able to escape the cages faster with each try. He determined that actions leading to escape were "satisfying" and were "stamped in", versus actions that were "annoying" and "stamped out". This is called the Law of Effect. This is essentially what you are saying, but uses very different terminology. Further, there's only one dimension to the theory: actions are either "satisfying" and "stamped in" or they're "annoying" and "stamped out".

Skinner (1904-1990) (the pioneer of formal operant conditioning) rejected many of Thorndike's ideas and formulated the ideas of positive/negative reinforcement/punishment, and the terminology hasn't changed since. Further, Skinner's theory has 2 dimensions to it (positive/negative and reinforcement/punishment) giving it twice the descriptive power of Thorndike's (Thorndike can describe two conditions, Skinner four). That extra dimension is where people tend to screw up.

The problem is that when people hear "positive", they think "good" instead of "addition", and when they hear "negative", they think "bad" instead of "remove". Positive reinforcement is something people can understand; it's not difficult at all. Add good to keep behavior going. What could be simpler? The "positive" in this can works as either "add" (as it's supposed to) and "good" (as people think it is).

This understanding of positive reinforcement has led people to believe they understand negative reinforcement as well (add bad to stop behavior). They do not. Most people don't even know about the opposite of reinforcement: punishment. And even when they do, it still takes most people years of classes before they really get it down. Four years of psych classes, and some of my classmates still couldn't keep it straight. Hell, I still draw the grid to keep it straight when I need to explain it.

This has, ultimately, led to the popular belief that "negative reinforcement" as the addition of punishment is part of a formal psychological theory. It isn't.

Regardless, even thinking about "negative" as "bad", it's obvious that "negative reinforcement" is not what you want. Negative reinforcement, in that context, would be the addition of something bad to reinforce a behavior, and that's not what you're after (or what you're likely to get). That's like shocking someone (painfully) when they press a lever in the hope that they will continue to press the lever (pro-tip: they won't).

SO, instead of using "negative reinforcement" erroneously, use the proper term: "positive punishment". It sounds more badass, anyway.

tl;dr Skinner formulated the operant conditioning theory of positive/negative reinforcement/punishment and the terms haven't changed since. If you want to use Thorndike's ideas ("satisfying", "stamped in", "annoying", "stamped out"), then you have to use Thorndike's terminology. If you want to use Skinner's terminology, you have to use Skinner's ideas. They do not mix and match.

Azuaron: Educating the internet about psychology since 2006.

PS. Out of curiosity, Caliostro, what is your exact field of study? I've go a BS in psych (with a focus on information processing), an MS in engineering psych (with a focus on human-computer interaction), and I'm a freelance web dev now. Always good to meet fellow psychologists. :-)

Would be fun to see a zombie game that does take "survival" as more than kill them before they kill you.

But that little blub at the end was distracting. Here's your whole article that did rip on games life L4D but had to throw in that little ending so not to insult Valve. You can call them out on it. You don't have to pander to the fanboys y'know.


Three words: Zombie. Panic. Source.

And of course, a good group of friends and regulars to play with. You can do much of what you're asking for there.

Bitten by the Carrier (first zombie player)? You're at risk of being infected, and you won't know for a bit. Sure, you can say you aren't ... but you might be lying. Your teammates can opt to wax you on the spot, but then you respawn as a zombie ... and if you weren't infected, a very angry one.

Or you can say that you never got hit; if no one was around (or survived) to witness you get bit. Sneak into your group of friends. Then suddenly zombify amidst them and watch the chaos unfold. Particularly amusing if your former teammate throws a grenade or mows down half of his friends in a spray of rifle fire trying to get you.

3 lines into the meat of the article and I can sort of see that there's going to be so much I'm going to disagree on it'll hurt to read.

(Something to the effect of): "What's that? Zombies are scary because they're cannibalistic monsters ready to eat your dick off? Wrong."

Well, no, actually, that's exactly why I would find zombies fucking scary. Not for you maybe.

Zombies aren't scary, which is probably why most modern zombies feature the "fast zombie" (or more accurately, the Infected), because going up against an enemy that you get away from by simply walking away isn't at all frightening. The only way they can even hope to make the concept even remotely scary is by stacking the deck by introducing giant hordes of the undead... and even that requires a certain amount of "look over there" and having a huge mob show up while the main character is distracted (the coma plot device being the most recent example of it). It's no accident that Shaun Of The Dead manages to be a comedy without subverting the basic formula of the zombie movie... because the basic formula of a zombie movie is already quite silly.

The only frightening aspect of a zombie movie is that one bite or scratch and it's game over... which is something a video game will never bother to replicate in today's market.

I want to make a zombie game. I want it to be if a zombie bites you you're pretty much screwed, so this means when you actually see zombies there's a real sense of fear, it could start out somewhere pretty abandoned, like a village in the country side or whatever. You make choices, where do you want to go, shall you look for a cure, or wait it out, find more survivors or stay with who you've got already...What I wouldn't do for my mind to make games, anyway good article!

If in a game you got bitten by a zombie and that made the AI survivors shoot you, everyone would think the game is fucking horrible.

Games are a different medium, you can't expect them to have the same rules novels or films have. Zombies fear is basicly that 1. You don't know if the entire earth is doomed. 2. One scratch and you are done. 3. I'm running out of resources.

You can't put that into games. You see, in games, there's always a helicopter waiting for you. There's always scape. There's always a base in Canada where the zombie's can't survive.

There's always a health bar. You get hit? no problemo, grabbing pills, grabbing pills!

You don't have to eat. LoL who would even think of putting food into consideration to survive? Oh wait, fallout does. And it's hella annoying. Yep, people actually hate having to eat to survive. It's not fun. And videogames are all about having fun, because, you know, they are games.

In the other hand I DO think you make very good points. The moment I saw the Dead Island trailer I was pumped. I was specting a very dark and gritty game. An actual SURVIVAL-horror. A game in which you had to move undetected, scavenge your way through the day, and hopefully wait to see more survivors and help them. A game in which each zombie is a challenge, as a civian you don't know how to bear a weapon so your aim is terrible, a game in which bullets are as rare as diamond is in minecraft.

Instead we are getting what seems to be another dead rising. D'ohwell, let's shoot some zombies and forget about the game in a couple years.

Some good points, survive as long as you can zombies exists as many people have already pointed out but they tend to be more arcade based. Personally I'd love to see a psychological horror of a zombie title with loads of character interaction and a sad ending. There have been plenty of zombie comedies lately in the games industry, time for something grittier.

Me, for one, would like a game where zombies are presented "realistically" but it will always be fun to mow down the undead hordes with an assault rife.

See this is why I'm hoping the Dead island game will be good, I'm holding out hope that it's not another:

"What's this?......Zombies have arrived and ruined my holiday......Sweetheart hand me the shotgun.......whats that, we don't have one?.......well This may be a holiday resort on a secluded island but there's bound to be a shotgun....or at least a mini-gun somewhere on this island".

nice article!

Zombies are goddamned ridiculous anyways. Heat, moisture, cold, insects, predators and people kill them; they can't heal day to day wounds and biting is generally a horrible way to spread a disease.

There's no such thing as a "realistic" zombie invasion.

Decent article though :P

I think the problem here is that you (the article writer) are missing some rather important points.

A lot of Zombie movies are designed as art pieces with zombies being a metaphor for something like consumerism. A point admitted by the people creating the movies. As such, common sense and a realistic reaction to the threat does not apply.

What's more being MOVIES the director has the option of things like scene transitions as a storytelling device. He doesn't have to worry about creating a constant play enviroment, and actually exploring the threat. He can find ways of moving from one relevent scene to another as well, or gloss over events like how certain people can remain totally oblivious to what should be the painfully obvious.

Then of course there is the issue of the player, you'll notice that among genere fans and nerds nobody's hypothetical "zombie survival plan" involves "hey, I think I'll go find the most obnoxious people possible, and then isolate myself with them".

The point being that in the terms of a video game, you both have differant tools and expectations, differant storytelling requirements, and of course an audience of nerds who are engaged in a sort of warped wish fulfillment fantasy.

The thing to understand is that "shoot zombies with guns" is a perfectly rational solution, and it's what real people would actually do. Most people not being the morons used to make an artistic point in a film. What's more, even those films tend to show that the characters being focused on *ARE* a group of idiots. You see scenes on the news or whatever of people engaged in more rational responses wiping zombies out, the Sheriff on TV talking about "twitchers" in day of the dead, or the posse that is involved at the end of "Night Of The Living Dead".

What's more it's also important to note that reasonable people are also going to note that zombies are by their nature finite. They are not going to be an inexorable tide of nature. in the overall scheme of things. Humans reproduce sexually, zombies rely on infectiong people. Assuming people can avoid getting infected once they know the threat, every zombie they take down is one that is permanantly gone. What's more there are finite numbers of people in any given area. In say a town of 2,000 people that seems like quite the horde, but four dudes with guns could actually clear that out pretty quickly given the capabilities of zombies, assuming they had enough ammo.

The bottom line here is that your pretty much argueing for a complete lack of common sense, and also not considering the differances between movie storytelling, and game storytelling, as well as the audience. Not to mention actually playing the game. Watching a bunch of morons get what's coming to them in a movie can be darkly entertaining, a lot of horror movies, especially Zombie movies, being morality plays of a sort. The thing is though that in a video game people need to interact with the enviroment, and simply walking around talking to obnoxious people isn't really going to be more than a bad interactive movie to begin with, and really that's what 99% of a game trying to recapture the feel of a zombie movie would actually do, and it would kin dof suck because people would figure "why am I playing this game, I could be watching a zombie movie for a lot less money, and have it done better!".

Now, to be honest there is one bit that works for video games to some extent, and that is if you isolate the protaganist. A scenario with a character stuck out in a cabin in the woods that limits resources and such works better for this kind of genere, because at least as far as that character is concerned resources are very limited, and what solutions might apply to people elsewhere do not nessicarly apply to him or her. Removing the factors one can use to make a movie interesting, things with people being in urban areas, shopping malls, and similar things where common sense dictates there are TONS of resources that can be used to radically alter the situation with a minimum of ingenuity, can create a degree of tension, but then again it can also be argued this doesn't fulfill the zombie survival vision of the person who is likely to buy a game like this.

Overall the upcoming "Dead Island" game seems to be a good compromise on the idea, because it is an action game by all accounts, but it used the isolation idea by putting the character(s) on a resort island. Resort islands by their nature not having actual weapons lying around, and of course if sa 99% of the people get turned by surprise, that remaining 1% is in trouble no matter what they do. The option of "well, I'll load up on guns and start thinning them out" doesn't apply even if the numbers of zombies are fairly limited. It's not like you can go salvage the local hunting shop, or a department store gun counter. Even if you personally collect guns or have a sidearm, chances are you weren't allowed to bring that on your vacation, the guys on the cruise ship/plane won't let you carry it, nor would the people on the island.

Joy,now I've got to get Zombie Island.Thank you person,thanks a lot.(You should be writing these instead)

But I like shooting zombies with my - BZZZT!

Did the author forget to play Dead Rising? Because it has all of these elements except one.
A. Ammo is scarce, and guns are hard to use because you're playing as a reporter, not a combat veteran.
B. Other humans are just as detrimental as the zombies.
C. The zombies are scary because there are thousands of them and you can't kill them all and they just keep coming.
D. You cannot win "survival" mode. Like pinball, it ends when you lose your balls.
E. Even in the story mode, you didn't win. Until Dead Rising 2 retconned it, Frank West was slowly dying on top of a tank, surrounded by the undead. You were fucked.

The one thing this game is missing is the threat of zombie infection. Even if you die you can just restart from your last save, or start the game over at your current level allowing you to start at full health, tons of special attacks, and more item slots than when you first started.

So, Dead Rising is a great zombie game in this guy's opinion. Trade that off with Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2.

A. Guns with unlimited ammo combined with non military types that seem to have military precision shooting.
B. Zombies come in waves, so you get breathers inbetween.
C. If you die, you're not dead period end of story. You get to wait in a broom closet until someone saves you, so there is no fear there.
D. Special infected are retarded.

The only thing this game has going for it is the fact you can't win, story wise. You can win individual levels and complete the game, getting from safehouse to safehouse, but the actual story ends with the survivors being stranded and never getting anywhere. Hell even one of the DLCs requires literally a player to sacrifice themselves for the others to continue. Yeah, shitty zombie game comparatively.

Dead Rising and Dead Rising 2: B+
Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2: D-

Sorry author, you need to check out the Dead Rising games.

Also, on a related note, The Clock Tower series was the only series to get survival horror RIGHT, but I'll wait for one of the Escapist writers to do an article on that rather then complain here in the forums.

Wow, I just wrote a nice response to this article in response to another article. Whoops.

Here's a summary, though:

Yup. Pretty much.

(Oh okay there's also the whole zombies = society angle, which takes a more metaphorical approach, and equates zombies not so much to a force of nature but to a - let's call it a zeitgeist. But I also already wrote about it, in response to the editor's note. So let's leave it at that and say that yes, zombie apocalypse should be about the people and not about the zombies, or it's not zombie apocalypse, it's a disaster movie.)



SO, instead of using "negative reinforcement" erroneously, use the proper term: "positive punishment". It sounds more badass, anyway.

I now have a name if I ever start a band.

Someone underestimates the will of humans to survive and our ability to reshape the enviroment to conquer nature and survive.

It's absurd to me that so many people are so self assured about what would really happen in such a fantastical scenario. I think tis article makes far too many assumptions on the nature of such an event to be so smug about what survival would really be like. How would an infection that is transmitted through blood, easily infect 99 percent of the population? And what about the commentary on the nature of zombies themselves. They are "unthinking?" That's ridiculous.

Someone need to make a zombie mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Limited the availability of gun and ammo, make hardcore rule(food, rest, time) part of the game.
The factions can be enclave of survivors, food and other resource(respawn every few game day) need to be raid from ruins in the wild or from other enclave.

In the game, you can either try to convince the enclave to let you join them or go solo and hole out in said ruins, however risking not only wandering zombie but also raiding survivors.

Upon death, you are scored base on how many game days you survived and supplies you have. And don't forget the achievements! Like avoiding fights for 7 days, manage to hoard supply, generosity to NPC and stuff like that.

Making players turn into zombies wouldn't be scary. People would do it for fun. And if you took away control, it'd just be a cute version of death. People in a zombie game wouldn't be popular. The draw of zombie games is mass murder against giant hordes of zombies, not fighting people like every other game ever. The only time you can do zombies like the way you want is in a game with zombies but also other enemies (and is established as that, not a bait-and-switch). So, the game to best do zombies by your criteria is, in my opinion, Halo. Not Halo 2 or 3, but Halo: Combat Evolved. The Flood are introduced later into the game, a zombie-like menace that's taken control of the bodies of your allies and enemies alike. You meet an insane survivor who tries to kill you (and you'll likely kill for that pistol), and you fight both Flood and Covenant at times (Covies could fall under your people category). The best part is that the Flood have guns, making them a truly frightening menace. How many people swore up a shitstorm when a rocket Flood blew the shit out of them?

I can't imagine anyone doing the STALKER of zombie games.

To my mind both dead rising games implemented the points in the article. In both games the zombie outbreak is caused by humans. In the beginning of the first game the survivors are doing fine until the old lady tries to get to her poodle. And in the second game there are multiple points where survivors and not psychopaths are a thread.
Both games feature the need to fight of infection. The first game had overtime mode, which was all about finding a cure. The second game you are constantly trying to keep Katey from turning.
Plus the zombies are a force that can't be stopped since they autospawn.

This is just a long-winded way of saying that a zombie movie is not the same as a zombie game. In zombie fiction, the danger does indeed come from the threat of infection, or competition with other humans over scarce resources in a devestated world.

In zombie games, the threat comes from the zombies themselves, for which the counter is guns, guns, and more guns.

The two share some elements; namely zombies, although the zombies themselves are not the same across all media.

Zombie games won't become better games by becoming more like zombie movies, or making the zombies in zombie games more like the zombies in zombie movies. Making other humans the real threat in zombie games just makes zombie games more like non-zombie games.

The way out of this conundrum has already been shown by one game: Stubbs the Zombie. In a proper zombie game, you play as the zombie-- which makes it only natural that the real threat comes from humans.

I'm sort of at a loss for what the author expects developers do to differently as a result of these revelations, if anything.

I loved this, everything mentioned is why I want a free-roaming survival horror based in a city, where the main gameplay is not killing zombies but staying alive, similar to the hardcore mode of fallout new vegas you have to eat, drink and sleep, but you also need to protect yourself and others (if you choose to group up with others) from other survivors as well as the undead, but you also need to find medical supplies and the like in case of more severe injuries.

In this game if you're bitten you will turn into a zombie and there won't be a quick save feature, it'll be more of a cooperative, persistant online world where your safehouse can be overrun when you're not online, just like you can be attacked by the undead when you're asleep, if you're bitten you can give your items to your friends and you must start a new character and can get the equipment back from your friends or you can find your body and salvage your belongings.

There aren't levels or stats, you're just a human being survive with anything they can and the damage you can do is dependant on the weight of the weapon or the sharpness, or if you're using a gun the usual as ammo type etc and the weapons need to be maintained to remain effective.

Why can no one make a game like this!? It would be like the walking dead and other similar zombie stories but in video game form. :)

You know, an english teacher of mine presented me with a theory a while back. He told me he believed that zombies where the manifestation of our fear of drug abuse.

Back when zombies were created, many had irrational fears that their towns youths would be corrupted by marijuana and become stupid, mindless... "zombies". So the premise of the zombie, is that if you don't contain the problem, it will spread to every town in America and cause our entire society to collapse. And so I present to you, "So the premise of the [drug addiction], is that if you don't contain the problem, it will spread to every town in America and cause our entire society to collapse."

So today, we've become much less afraid of Marijuana. Now our zombies represent herion/cocain addicts that have been known to do some crazy things while under the influence of the said drugs. (ex. Tales of police shooting a man hopped up on herion who, despite being shot numerous times, continues to run at them until ultimately brought down.)Suddenly, it would make sense why zombies have gone from slow moving and stupid to driven and fast. Of course theres more ways to connect this, like talking about how you have to shoot them in the head or why, in some cases, only some are infected and not other, but I'm merely presenting this theory to you, not writing a research paper. Feel free to expand on this as much as you want.

I think they need to explore a time setting not often explored in video games: The begining of the outbreak. Take a sandbox game, much like the size of Dead Risin, and fill it with NPCs who do their own scrip, much like normal people would. Somewhere at random in the in game world the zombie infection would begin, starting with one person. Maybe he's in his house with his wife and kids and infects them in their home, and maybe the mailman comes and gets infected and it goes from there. Or maybe a woman NPC in a shopping mall trying on clothes infects the employee helping her, who infects the mall security guard and it goes on from there.

Then you would keep doing whatever you were doing before untill the infection reached you, and you saw some lady getting pulled out of her car and eaten. Being open world they could do a lot of things with this. You could go the Dead Rising approach and go to town, and just go to town on the zombies, or you can try to escape the infection, or maybe you just sit on your roof with some beer and a handgun and take the Romero approach and shoot some neighbors you never really liked. Of course, I'm not a game designer so I don't exactly know how advanced they'd be able to make these NPCs, but its just a thought.

This post is getting way too long so to wrap it up...

I think zombies represent drug addicts so I don't really mind them being all fast and everything... Hey it'd be cool for a game to take place at the begining of the infection, wouldn't it?

What about FUN though? You remember FUN, right?

There's a reason there aren't many zombie games about hiding in a cupboard reflecting on the human condition. Mainly because that would be really bloody boring.

I really love how this article was written. It had an upbeat tone yet an important message.

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