“You died of wormes!”: What an online ‘death roulette’ game can teach us about pandemics

The "17th century death roulette bot" raises difficult questions about how we empathise with lives in the past—and reveals the way plague still shapes our modern view of disease

February 28, 2020
A memento mori printed on London's Dreadful Visitation. Photo: Wellcome collection
A memento mori printed on London's Dreadful Visitation. Photo: Wellcome collection

Sometime between 8th and 15th August 1665 you were found dead in the parish of St Bartholomew’s the Less, just north of St Paul’s Cathedral. Or you drowned, or were murdered in Stepney, or died of the plague. You can die in all of these ways in about forty-five seconds (if you move fast enough), and it’s a fairly entertaining thing to do when you’re bored at work.

This is “17th Century Death Roulette,” a browser game from the website, which generates randomised causes of death from London death statistics, known as “bills of mortality.” It’s also a new iteration of a familiar phenomenon: seeing the funny side of historical death. There’s a lot of it about, from the Horrible Histories franchise (which I love) to the gleeful torture-focused exhibitions at places like London’s Clink Museum (which I... do not). If you want more deathly fun online, you can tweet at the Medieval Death Bot to be told that you have been murdered by clerks (a pretty common way to go, according to the coroners’ rolls from which the bot draws its content).

Why is death funny when it happens centuries ago? Or, maybe more to the point: how do we come to treat it as funny, and what—beyond the affordances of technology—makes it possible to turn records of historical catastrophe into a game? Using “real mortality records from London’s Dreadful Visitation,” Death Roulette allows the player to “see what [they] might’ve died from in 1665.” Clicking ‘SPIN THAT WHEEL’ sends pages of weekly mortality statistics—lists of illnesses or accidents, with the numbers of those who died from them—flickering past your eyes; you click once to choose a week at random, and then again to land on a random mode of death.

As well as familiar causes of death—drowning, cancer—you encounter the less familiar, such as ‘tissick’ (respiritory illness) or ‘livergrown’ (enlargement of the liver). The words often seem strange, and the phrasing unexpected. The game’s creator, Matt Round, wrote on Twitter—of an entry reading ‘Burnt (by accident) at St Leonard Shoreditch’—“Imagine suffering a horrific death then hundreds of years later people find it amusing because of how someone used parentheses.”

Being an early modern scholar, I’m a bit more immune to the humour of archaic punctuation than Round is, but playing ‘Death Roulette’ (which is a diverting and well-designed game, which I will now proceed to cavil at exceedingly) brings up a tension familiar from researching and teaching seventeenth-century medical history. The gory details of early modern disease and misadventure are fascinating, and the ways that historical people depicted bodies and the things that went wrong with them are different enough from twenty-first century discourse to read as weird and, yes, sometimes funny.

A page from London's Dreadful Visitation. Photo: Wellcome collection A page from London's Dreadful Visitation. Photo: Wellcome collection

A page from London's Dreadful Visitation. Photo: Wellcome collection

The starting screen of ‘Death Roulette’ uses the title-page of the publication from which the lists are taken, Londons Dreadful Visitation (1665), adorned with grinning skulls that read to twenty-first-century eyes as kitsch, or pleasingly goth. I have absolutely been known to bedeck my lecture Powerpoints with early modern skeletons, and I don’t intend to stop.

On the other hand, though, these were lives: ones that ended a long time ago, but which often did so in unimaginable suffering. Londons Dreadful Visitation is a re-publication, by the pioneering statistician John Graunt, of the weekly bills of mortality for the year 1665. It is intended to show the progress of what is still known as the ‘Great Plague’: the third and final big outbreak of bubonic plague of the seventeenth century, which (like its predecessors in 1603 and 1625) killed approximately 20 per cent of the population of London. The game’s mechanics obscure the scale of the epidemic: the outcome isn’t weighted according to the relative mortality figures, so if you land on the week of August 8 you are as likely to die of ‘raising of the lights’ (difficulty breathing, nineteen dead) as of the plague (3880 dead).

The plague was not limited to such catastrophic outbreaks, though: it claimed lives most summers, an ever-present threat which needed to be kept track of. Information on individual deaths was gathered by “searchers” elderly women employed by each parish who—at great personal risk, and wielding recognised medical expertise—entered houses where death had occurred to examine bodies and take testimony from witnesses. If someone was found to have died of plague, the house in which they had died was closed up, with its residents forbidden to leave until a fixed time had elapsed: much like the advice given to those who may have been exposed to coronavirus to ‘self-isolate’, but with a far higher chance of a painful death. Survival rates for plague sufferers in seventeenth-century London varied, from about 60 per cent if you caught the ‘bubonic’ form (which caused you to develop agonising swellings and skin lesions), to almost nothing if the infection became ‘pneumonic’ and invaded your lungs.

The content used in “Death Roulette” was originally intended to track infection, and to allow both civic authorities and individual readers to respond to it. Information from searchers was collated by parish clerks, and published in weekly “Bills of Mortality,” in charts detailing how many had died (divided into plague deaths, and deaths by other means) in each London parish. The lists used in “Death Roulette” are printed on the reverse of these parish charts. Round’s choice to use one set of lists and not the other is a fairly obvious one: “timpany" (swelling of the abdomen) can, perhaps, be funny, but it’s hard to find the humour in learning that 285 people died in one week in the parish of St Mary Whitechapel, with 240 of those dying of plague.

These geographical lists allowed their readers to assess the spread and intensity of an outbreak, and thus which areas to avoid, and whether or not they should attempt to flee the city. They also reveal the extent to which epidemic disease replicates social inequalities. Plague took a disproportionate toll on the poorer parishes, like Whitechapel, outside the city walls. Poorer people tended to live in cramped, sometimes unsanitary conditions, in which plague bacilli—and the fleas that carried them, and the rats that carried them—passed easily between houses and individuals. Poor nutrition and sanitation weakened the immune system, as did hard and unsafe labour. Crucially, poor Londoners were also far less able to escape the plague-ridden city than wealthier ones.

This geographical aspect also has the capacity to bring things closer to the twenty-first century reader, at least for those familiar with London. Working on plague while living in Stepney, I walked every day through areas in which hundreds of people had died on my way to the British Library to read the harrowing accounts of those who had survived the epidemic. Reading Londons Dreadful Visitation can layer your experience of the city with horror.

When I teach plague literature I begin with a question: what excites you about a city? In a city you have so many chances to gather together, to experience music or art or food or just companionship. You could meet a person in a bus queue who changes your life. During a plague that’s the same: but what you come back with from the gatherings might be infection. The person in the queue might, unknowingly, give you a sickness that will kill you, and your family, and your neighbours.

How, then, can this mass mortality—this urban nightmare—be funny? ‘Death Roulette’ partly achieves this through redaction: players see the bit of the bills of mortality that look most alien, and not the bit that refers to places they might, potentially, be familiar with. It flickers quickly through the weeks and gives few if any details about the deaths you land on.

On a wider level, though, it speaks to the distancing of historical death: it may be how ‘you’ die, but the deaths are far enough away that they barely register as suffering. Laughing at distant death—whether it is distance in time, or in space, or both—can be comforting: it positions mortality as something happening to other people, a long way away. To read the other parts of Londons Dreadful Visitation, though, is to confront the fact that the plague peppers the urban landscape and shapes the ways we still think about epidemics; the fact that it is, quite literally, under our feet.

The author wrote this article outside of the period covered by the recent UCU strike.