With titles like Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Plants vs Zombies, and more recently Dead Island each raking in millions of dollars, there is some sociological phenomenon at work to sway public interest toward the undead. In addition to these games there are other big names that are eluding me right now, and of course there are the ‘zombie versions’ of nearly every big game. Here's a few of the factors coming together for this recent surge in popularity for zombie games, movies, and television shows.
1) THE DEAD ARE A CLEAR ENEMY
Before Vietnam, war was fairly clear-cut in the eyes of the world public. More or less anyone would agree that the Nazi’s had a bad plan and needed to be stopped. Ask anyone why America was fighting in Iraq though, and you’re going to get conflicting opinions. As a gamer, players want their character’s to be justified in their actions. Zombies give them that justification where “real world” enemies do not.
2) THE DEAD ARE POLITICALLY CORRECT
This is a time that might well be later referred to as the “age of the offended minority”. Game developers have almost no limits on the level of gore, nudity, and violence they can show, but they have to tread lightly around any minority’s rights. This isn't a bad thing, but it does mean that there are limits on the dialogue and actions of the “bad guys” in a lot of games. Russians are complicated. Women are complicated. Terrorists are complicated. Germans are complicated. The undead? Wide open. It’s okay to kill 10,000 zombies in a game, but it isn’t okay to kill 10,000 humans, especially when they’re all from the same place.
3) APOCALYPSE NOW...ISH
There were several apocalypses predicted just about now, or a little while ago, by the Mayans or Aztecs or Christian fundamentalists or Nostradamus… more or less whoever you ask allegedly said at one point or another that the end is nigh. This means that the end of the world is topical, and Zombies are a good candidate for why.
4) ZOMBIES ARE EASY
When you’re developing a game, there are about 3 big factors in budgeting. Depending on the game, these each have different relative values. First there’s the programming. The game needs to work well; enemies need to act intelligently, etc. Second there’s the writing, modeling and animation. The game has to look good if people are going to want to play it. Finally there’s the advertising. People need to hear about the game. In a zombie game, AI is easy; Zombies are dumb. Writing is fairly easy too; zombies are predictable. Modeling is easier still; zombies have been imagined for over 50 years and have an awkward shuffling gait at the best of times.
5) KILLING ZOMBIES "FEELS" REAL
Bear with me on this one. The world is incredibly fake right now. Women have breast implants, chicken has saltwater injected into it, people burn fake logs, dogs eat synthetic bones, plastic looks like wood… the list goes on. In the midst of all of this fake-ness, the idea of surviving with your wits in any environment is appealing. Fashioning together weapons in a mall, setting traps in the wilderness, and rationing resources are all concepts that hearken to something deep and instinctual within us that is hard to find in a world of boca burgers, soy lattes, and cars made of plastic. It feels good to get your hands dirty smashing heads, even in a video game.