Why DayZ is the Greatest Social Experiment in Videogames
I hear a man’s voice crack in terror. There’s a rumbling sound as he tries to get his microphone into place before someone shoots. “Friendly!” He pleads. “Please don’t kill me. I have nothing.” A moment later, a player with a sterner tone cautions me not to enter the grocery store. “I don’t want to do this,” she begins. “But if you step in that door, I will kill you. It’s not worth it, man.” This is communication in DayZ and it is full of these grim bargains.
People are scared in DayZ for good reason. Hunger, dehydration, broken limbs, shock, and bleeding wounds are all real threats. Those are deaths that are possible without an enemy even being present. The environment can kill you and if you do perish, that death is ultimate. There are no save states or checkpoints. You can respawn, but only as a new character.
As devastating as that sounds in theory, it stings even worse in practice. Minutes, hours, and even full weeks can be taken away by anything from a mob of zombies to an errant slip off a ledge. This is the closest gaming can come to mortality as players will experience fear for their virtual lives, terrified that a mistake will snuff out their progress irrevocably. But, there’s still something worse lurking out there, scarier than zombies and even more dangerous than the unforgiving coast of Chernarus. Other humans occupy the same space and seek the same resources. They are the reason discovering dead zombies is infinitely more terrifying than finding live ones.
Upwards of 60 people can occupy a server in DayZ, and there are no rules to dictate how they should behave. There are no teams, no allies, no friendly markers. You won’t find any looking for group queue systems, and if someone does suggest that you team up, it’s likely a trap. Other people are the greatest enemy you’ll encounter and most are operating under the brutal, but disturbing reality that killing another player is statistically safer than attempting to befriend one. Moral code aside, the act removes the threat and presents the player with a tangible reward at the same time. It’s hard not to view other players as walking treasure chests.
There is a theoretical piece of game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma and it frames the typical interactions within DayZ perfectly. The scenario supposes that two apprehended criminals are being interrogating in separate rooms of a police station. They are both given an identical offer. If the two of them remain silent, their sentence will be nothing more than a slap on the wrist. If one betrays the other and confesses, than that criminal will walk away without punishment, leaving the other to take a severe jail sentence. If they both confess, then the two will both receive a minor sentence of jail time. When you break down the risk factor of the four choices, the grim truth is clear. Betrayal is statistically favorable.
During gameplay, this scenario happens in seconds, in the wide open, where one player might not be aware of the other, and that other player is likely sporting an assault weapon. It’s a wonder anyone survives for more than an hour. It seems like it should all boil down to a terse game of high-risk griefing.
But, despite the hostility, civility exists. Players indicate pacifism with a simple salute animation or respectful crouch, a non-verbal way to indicate a peaceful stance. Some may even greet you and, once confirming that you are either choosing not to be violent or simply lack to the tools necessary for it, offer their assistance. Even more impressively, some will share their supplies, grant you a weapon for defending yourself, or even team-up with you to mutually improve the odds. Their complaisance exists and is upheld entirely by their own ethics. There are no rewards for altruism. Only risks.
DayZ’s gruesome parameters succeed at breeding genuine fear, but the truly unique thing is the uplifting feeling of finding humanity in spite of it. In theory, everyone should be slitting each other’s throats in a mad scramble for survival. The world of Chernarus is a rough, approximated, virtual version of society, packed with players trying to survive in the most hostile conditions possible. Yet, the mini societal experiment still manages to produce friendly people. It’s hard to blame people for their hostility when you encounter it, but its easy to genuinely appreciate those that rise above it. Every time a player lowers his weapon or passes me a tin of beans, it’s impossible not to have a little faith in humanity, even if it’s just for a few moments.
Header image credit to Assassinofgod over on the DayZ forums.