Despite a lack of female doctors, Theme Hospital marked a turning point for girls playing computer games.

As Edinburgh’s doctors dealt with rising obesity and a heroin epidemic, across the city my friend and I were taking on our own medical emergencies: bloated heads and elongated tongues. Crammed into the downstairs cupboard of her parents’ – themselves doctors – otherwise large and lovely home, we became the masters of our own hospital, Theme Hospital: a pastel-coloured, retro-patterned, pixelated dolls house in which there were counterproductive numbers of KitKat machines.

Conceived in the dying days of John Major’s Conservative government, Theme Hospital was released on PC in 1997 – the same year as New Labour’s election landslide. Tony Blair had spent the run up to the poll attacking the Tories for mismanagement of the NHS and promising to build hospitals. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that Theme Hospital’s initial press diagnosis was deeply serious. “A grisly computer game which shows a doctor operating with a chainsaw is to be used as a training aid for NHS managers,” the Evening Standard reported in the month of its release, adding that medical groups had condemned the game.

In fact, despite visiting several British hospitals and even observing surgery in research for their game, its makers decided to inject comedy rather than gritty realism. “We were seeing all these really quite horrific things that people go through in their lives and it isn’t easy to turn that into entertainment,” Gary Carr, the artist for Theme Hospital, tells the New Statesman. “So we just tried to take the comical approach. We weren’t medical people, so why not rack the whole thing up and make it ridiculous?” “This was never about taking the mickey out of the health service,” Mark Webley, the producer and designer of Theme Hospital adds. “The fun of it was because we were making a piece of entertainment, making the strange illnesses.”

In Theme Hospital players are presented with an empty hospital building, ready to be filled with clinics, pharmacies and staff rooms for their tetchy employees. The more treatments the player invests in, the more curious the patients’ illnesses, and the more eccentric the cures. A figure made up of only a hat, spectacles, a wristwatch, shoes and a walking stick glugs down a bottle of medicine and is revealed as a man cured of invisibility. The tongues of slack-tongue sufferers are placed in the slicer machine, and swiftly lopped off. “Certainly visually, with something like bloaty head disease, my favourite bit of that is the popping of the head,” says Webley, who may have also uncovered the reason the game held so much attraction to a group of kids. Some other illnesses, like “3rd Degree Sideburns”, and “TV Personalities”, are only referenced in passing, leaving their patient avatars to the imagination.

While the makers of Theme Hospital based their research on the NHS, the hospital in the game operates as a money-making business. “People thought because you got paid we …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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Theme Hospital: how a game inspired by NHS managers turned into an epidemic success

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