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 map 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. And everything that wants you dead.

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, 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.

Up to 50 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 disturbingly true 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 loot at the same time. It’s hard not to view other players as walking treasure chests.

This puts each player into a dangerous safari of personalities, as survivors collide in populated areas or around locations of potential loot. Each conflict is completely defined by the disposition and moral compass of the players. It’s a boundary-free society in a bottle. I am a passive and friendly player, for instance, but if I’m surprised in a dangerous scenario, my reaction could be harsh and spontaneous. Over time, the game has managed to erode my ideals with numerous betrayals and ambushes. All the hostility has left me distrustful. It’s my prerogative to cooperate, but there’s no law in Chernarus. I’m at the whim of desperate, wild strangers.

I’ve had players apologize as they murder me. Over the forty-meter localized voice chat, a man once said that he couldn’t take the risk as he pumped an AK clip into my chest before I even saw him. Another shot my friend in the knees from a distance - which crippled, but did not kill him - and then approached him to finish him off with a hatchet. “Sorry,” he said, raising the weapon above his head. “I really am. But, I have to conserve ammo.”

There is a theoretical piece of game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that frames the typical DayZ interaction 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 that betrayal is statistically favorable is revealed.

Except, during gameplay, this example happens in seconds, in the wide open, where one player might not be aware of the other, and that other player is 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 your odds. Their complaisance exists and is upheld entirely by their own moral compass. There are no rewards for altruism. Only risks.

Yet it happens everywhere. Videos of players assisting and protecting other players. Some use their high-grade equipment to snipe zombies chasing new players without ever revealing themselves. Others are more public. Reddit has created the Rescue Force community, which is comprised of players that risk dangerous scenarios to rescue wounded players. On Youtube, there’s Fritz, a German player that records his medical missions and offers tips to new players. He even includes a montage of in-game tips to inform players of how to avoid dangerous scenarios.

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, existing in the most hostile conditions possible. Yet, friendly people exist and thrive. It’s hard to blame people for their hostility, 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 its just for a few moments.