Is that zombie game good for your moral compass?

A new kind of computer game lets players kill, or help, each other, giving gamers a mirror to examine their morals.

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A moment of decision in DayZ. Bohemia Interactive

In an early scene in the postapocalyptic video game The Last of Us, the main character sees a stranger with a broken gas mask trapped beneath a collapsed structure. Ingesting the airborne spores of a virus that will transform him into a zombie, the stranger pleads to be killed then and there.

The choice for players is between ending his life or, as in-game lingo puts it, letting him "turn." The act of killing becomes humane, while inaction becomes potentially immoral -- and simultaneously self-preserving: bullets are scarce, and wasting one on mercy is not in a player's best interest.

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Those kinds of decisions have become common in postapocalyptic fiction, where social structure is hollowed out, morality is contorted, and survival is paramount. In Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road," from 2006, the unnamed father saves one bullet in his revolver for his son, instructing the boy that in a worst-case scenario, he should turn the weapon on himself to avoid capture by cannibals. The literary genre uses these normally unthinkable situations to grind down human nature to its most primal components and test the limits of behavior.

Now a new breed of computer games is doing the same. They marry the tensions of a postapocalyptic setting to a multiplayer online world where gamers -- free of the limited choices of a predetermined storyline -- can do just about anything they want. And unlike similarly wide-open games like Grand Theft Auto, they up the ante with a unique approach to in-game death: There are no instant restarts; if you kill someone (or they kill you), they (or you) are back to square one.

As a result, these titles take players beyond "what if" toward "what would you do." And in the process, they become something like real-time experiments in morality.

"A bit of freedom"
The Last of Us was 2013's standout PlayStation 3 title, praised for breathing new life into the tired zombie genre by spinning it as a postapocalyptic story that haunted you with its realism and discomforting moral ambiguity. But developer Naughty Dog designed its game to tell a specific story. It played more like an interactive movie, where choices like deciding the fate of the man with the broken mask were few and far between.

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But newer games -- namely indie PC titles DayZ and Rust -- have brought the postapocalypse, survive-at-all-cost mindset to online gaming, with multiple participants, and they've gone beyond the limitations of linear storytelling by giving players freedom of choice. When multiple players can communicate with and help -- or kill and terrorize -- each other, the potential outcomes are endless, and so are the potential moral quandaries.

"I think postapocalyptic scenarios give people a bit of freedom," says DayZ creator Dean Hall. "We've always sat down and said, 'What would we do if s--t went down?'

"It's that freedom, right? I have to stand on my own two feet. I don't have these rules and constraints. It's you against the world."

And by letting people explore the question "who am I in a world without consequences?" in deep and unanticipated ways, this mix of Armageddon tension and free choice seems to have caught on: Hall says his $30 game has been downloaded more than 2 million times.

"I loved 'The Road' -- the book and the film -- but it's terrible; some of the things are just awful," Hall says. "But we like feeling stuff, right?"

"I have this theory that that's why people are often continuing to play out these horrific scenarios that happen to them in DayZ: They've gotten emotionally caught up in what's going on. That was always the intention."

You only live once
Before becoming a game developer, Hall spent five years in New Zealand's air force, and at one point, he went through a survival-training program that, because he didn't ration his food properly, nearly led to his death from starvation. That experience was the seed for DayZ, Hall's open-world multiplayer PC game set in the fictional European state of Chernarus, where society is reset to near-zero by a zombie outbreak.

"DayZ is really disaster survival," Hall says. "You could swap out zombies for an oil crisis, for example. Zombies are something people understand. It's a little bit easier and faster for people to process."

In DayZ, you start out with a flashlight and minimal clothing and are forced to scavenge for tools and weapons. Zombies aren't the biggest threat. As in other postapocalyptic entertainments, humans are the real enemy -- though now it's actual people behind computer avatars that are your nemeses. They can stalk and rob you, or shoot you on sight. Conversely, players can make gifts of supplies, or even join with you and others to form a band of survivors.

A unique component of these games is the way they handle death. Unlike other titles, you get one life per game, and you can't simply restart and pick up where you left off. One death wipes the slate clean -- the time and effort you've put into navigating the game and outfitting your character are snatched away, and because of your emotional involvement, it stings.

Every encounter in games like DayZ thus becomes heart-racing, every action more realistic: Naivete can get "you" killed; an act of kindness from another player restores -- momentarily anyway -- your faith in humanity. While you're playing, then, you have an avatar-like identity that transcends our usual understanding of in-game characters, and that also makes the supposed morality tests found in series like Fable, Fall Out, and Mass Effect fall flat.

"The first time you die in DayZ -- you really die," Hall says. "Like, you've been playing for a couple of weeks -- there's that moment after when your screen goes black and you've lost everything. The impact of loss and this persistent character and how it changed the psychology of the player...that's what makes it very different."

It's an effective blend of real and unreal: It fundamentally changes your perspective on playing, adding gravity to your actions and putting them more in line with a real-life postapocalyptic scenario -- or at least as close as we've gotten in game playing thus far.

In open-world, multiplayer games like Grand Theft Auto, which for years have given players the tools to do whatever they wanted, death carries no serious penalty, and the survive-at-all-costs context is missing. So interactions tend to turn immediately to mindless violence, and meaningless chaos is the beginning and the end.

"I can't play GTA because I ask myself what I'm doing," Hall explains. "If I'm in DayZ, it gives me a sense of context and really feels like a real virtual world."

Take a look at yourself
As is the case with research on books, movies, and other media, no study has ever definitively linked games with violent content directly to real-world violence. But that doesn't necessarily mean our actions in computer-generated environments are insignificant. Our behavior in a gaming scenario with no real consequences may still say something about us.

The situation was examined recently by a thought-provoking piece in Wired by Ryan Rigney: "Why Online Games Make Players Act Like Psychopaths." Rigney's centerpiece was a seemingly sociopathic display in DayZ (a recording of it went viral on YouTube) in which four armed men force two poorly armed players to fight to the death with axes. Because death in DayZ carries with it such weight, threat of termination can get other players to do things they'd normally quit the game to avoid.

In this case, when one of the captive players tries to flee before the fight (while the other goes for an ax), he gets a bullet in the head. The other gets a prize and is sent on his way.

Using that grisly occurrence, Rigney's piece raises the question that's long been present in debates about open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, as well as the vile online speech between, say, Call of Duty players. Is the way we act in a simulated setting indicative of our true personal nature?

The easy answer to why we act the way we do in virtual realms, and one offered by many gamers themselves, is simply this: Because we can. It's only a game, so who cares? It's all in good fun.

But the realism and graphic nature of these new titles, as well as the fact that they do have real-world consequences -- even if it's only inconveniencing a fellow gamer by wiping out the time they've put into the game -- changes the dynamic. In a way that other games don't, these titles mirror the struggle human beings might endure in reality -- there are times when there is no easy way out, no Quit button from a life-threatening scenario. In DayZ, players understand that, and they let it inform the experience. And that's why DayZ is not just a zombie game, but one of the more morally complex ways for gamers to examine themselves.

"It's kind of like, 'What is your story?' and 'What's happening?'" Hall says. "Maybe that's helped people...play out a role and see it through to completion."

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And with 2 million downloads, a game like DayZ may also give a glimpse of human nature in general. Thankfully, it's not all about forced ax fights (or captives doing silly dances for their freedom, only to be coldly executed). As the unlimited possibilities of these games suggest, there's bad and good and everything in between too. Take, for instance, the bandit in DayZ who felt it cruel to kill a rookie player he was robbing and instead traded with him for a can opener at gunpoint and then let him go. (The victim asked to team up afterward.)

After all, it's not necessarily that we're by nature all good or evil -- either benevolent people who wouldn't survive in a DayZ setting, or violent psychos hoping for a postapocalyptic scenario so we can morph into Governor of AMC's "The Walking Dead," wipe out our past, and rule society with a sociopathic iron fist.

The freedom in these games puts the complexity of human nature -- and of decision-making in a do-or-die situation -- on display, in ways that are sometimes hard to take, but in ways that can be moving too.

It's "giving players the choice and not making, from a designer standpoint,...a moral decision about what they do," Hall says. "The ability for people to be bad in the game is important because it makes the times when people are good mean it."

About the author

Nick Statt is a staff writer for CNET. He previously wrote for ReadWrite and was a news associate at the social magazine app Flipboard. He spends a questionable amount of his free time contemplating his relationship with video games while continuously exploring the convergence of tech, science and pop culture.

 

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