Morality After the Apocalypse

DayZ and Kenneth Burke

My name is Kent Aardse. I’m the Commentaries editor on First Person Scholar. Currently I’m a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research explores how narrative and rule-based games may be the two most fundamental types of activity that characterize the human mind, and I believe the study of gaming may help illuminate certain aspects of how the mind operates.

Academic and popular discussion of morality in videogames usually focuses on two or three game franchises: Mass Effect, Fallout, and Bioshock. These games follow the common trope of working with a simplistic morality scale: in choosing ‘good’ decisions, the player gains karma or some form of fame, and in choosing ‘bad’ decisions, the player gains negative karma or infamy. Non-player characters encountered in these games will treat you differently, offer divergent conversation threads, and sell goods at higher or lower prices depending on where you reside in the morality scale. These games are usually advertised as those in which the player’s choices greatly affect the story and outcome of the game, and are thought to be more interactive and immersive. This is a problem of artificial intelligence, as game designers must find ways to create worlds in which the player feels she can alter based on her actions, and the morality scale is a simple design feature that allows companies to create the illusion of cause-and-effect. Of course, this is not a perfect simulation of real-world ethics and morality, as decisions in real life are never as black-and-white as these good or bad decisions in real life.

The online zombie survival shooter DayZ provides an intriguing example of morality and ethics in videogames, and as it is relatively new, has not received much (if any) academic attention. The game is an expansion mod created by Dean Hall, for the realistic military shooter game ARMA II: Advanced Operations, developed by Bohemia Interactive Studio. DayZ takes place in a massive, always-online game-space, in which the player begins a game session on a beach, in the midst of a zombie outbreak. Celebrated for its realism, the player begins with no items or weapons, no map, and no discernible goal. In fact, DayZ is effectively devoid of any narrative whatsoever. The morality and ethics then, by extension, are not forced scales included by the developers to make the world seem more interactive and malleable; rather, the morality comes from the players’ interactions with one another in the game world. As the game is always online, the player will encounter many other human players around the world, and must decide whether to work together to combat the zombies, or kill each other for supplies, weapons, and ammo.

DayZ provides us with a Burkean proverbial situation, in that the player confronts an unfamiliar situation and learns strategies and behaviours for coping. Essentially, DayZ allows the player to immerse herself in a strange situation reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). Residing in a world of no law or consequences, it is up to the players to either keep civility alive, or let chaos reign supreme. This not a forced morality, as is the case with most single player games relying on artificial intelligence, but a realistic portrayal of life after an immense catastrophe. Indeed, after playing the game for a few hours, it becomes apparent that the real enemy in DayZ is not the zombies, but the other players inhabiting the world. Incidentally, here we find an example of the scene-agent ratio from Burke’s pentad. The scene, a society crumbled from a chaotic outbreak of disease, impacts the players to a degree that they will turn on one another for supplies. From this author’s experience with the game, it is safe to say that chaos is winning online, as most deaths incurred have been at the hands of other players, eager to get their hands on a spare bandage or a can of beans. While this may be alarming, it should not be analyzed as a realistic portrayal of how these players would behave in a similar real-world situation. Rather, as noted above, DayZ provides a safe environment for players or interrogate their own morality and ethics; even if players decided to kill one another and loot bodies, it is safe to say that these actions resonate within them and allow for closer scrutiny of moral decisions.

With all of this in mind, DayZ is unlike any other game you have ever played, guaranteed. It is unforgiving, uncompromising, and relentless. There is virtually no story here, just the abandoned cities and farms which provide the perfect backdrop for players to imprint their own narrative of this zombie apocalypse. The most fun to be had comes from finding a friend or two and working together to survive. Players have the ability to build their own vehicles using parts scavenged from around the world, so players can take to the roads with a group of friends in a 4X4 all-terrain vehicle, or even a school bus. DayZ is so immersive precisely as a result of these choices; many times in game I would think to myself, “This is exactly how I’d be approaching this building if I was actually surviving in a zombie apocalypse.” This is what makes DayZ one of the best things to happen to PC gaming in years. Further, it is great to see developers so responsive to modding communities, as it has been recently announced that DayZ is transitioning to a stand-alone product in the fall of 2012. These sorts of endeavours, that cut against the grain of the commercial gaming industry, provide us with some of the most unique and exciting experiences in gaming today.