ean Hall’s mod of ARMA 2, DayZ, recreated a grim wasteland that has become an enormous hit. The indie developer successfully created an open world zombie game, but it’s success did not arise from the horror of walking undead, but from the other human players.
These other players roaming the same wasteland with you, players that might kill you simply to steal your can opener, were far more terrifying than anyone with rotting flesh. The game was more of a social experiment than anything, and given the complete freedom of the world, it became every avatar for themselves. Naturally, abuse followed.
Experienced players carrying heavy firepower have the ability to pick off new players easily, and this inequality is made worse by the game’s perma-death setting where you lose all your equipment and have to respawn at the beginning. Many experienced players take delight in terrorizing new players in a variety of ways, such as forcing them to read books out loud to avoid being shot or yelling obscenities over their dying bodies.
Sometimes the better side of charity and human decency would pop up in stories like the “polite robber,”—where a player steals one item from another player’s backpack, but replaces it with a less valuable item and doesn’t kill him— though they are few and far between. Games like Rust capitalized on the popularity of DayZ and literally had new players spawn naked with nothing but a rock in their inventory.
Grand Theft Auto also causes a stir because of the player’s freedom to kill, maim and steal. Many in the gaming community roll their eyes at the arguments of de-sensitization and contend that at the end of the day you are driving over pixels, it’s “just a game.” No one is actually being harmed.
But the line is blurred in a game like DayZ. You can easily ruin a real person’s day, just as if you were being a jerk on the subway in real life.
It begs the question, does it matter if we are jerks in a virtual world? What does morality have to say about hurting, rather than helping, someone in a world without consequences?
Or is it Hall’s fault for creating a game that rewards players who take what they want?
Journey was a game heralded as one of the most moving experiences for players, and like DayZ, players would find themselves sharing an online world with other players. During early iterations of the game, creator Jenova Chen allowed players to physically interact with each, but found instead of working together, players would often try and push each other off of cliffs.
He explained players in virtual worlds are like children, they will do whatever gives them the greatest response. In a game, killing someone, especially with consequences like perma-death and the loss of progress and items like in DayZ, this is the greatest impact you can have on a virtual world and its inhabitants.
So Chen took out the ability to physically interact with each other. Instead, players could only work together, and communicate in cheery chirps. The result? People worked together, they bonded, and had the polar opposite experience of the trolls of DayZ.
People have the capacity to be both trolls and good people. The choice is our own, yet game designers hold a lot of sway; they can bring out the best in their players or the worst. They can reward cruelty and selfishness or charity.
In competitive multiplayer mode of the MMO game Destiny, it’s easy to become angry and frustrated at the opposing team when you lose. This is especially so in the Iron Banner tournament, which lets the players unequally fight each other, no matter their level. A level 26 player will lose in a match to a player outfitted with level 30 gear almost every time.
I get frustrated, even curse under my breath (and sometimes over it) when a match is going badly. It sometimes brings out the worst in me. Yet, besides guns, Destiny also includes a few other options to interact with the world: a dance action, a wave, a pointing animation, and taking a seat on the ground.
At the end of every match, the winning and losing teams are announced, the points are tallied, and yet the game gives you a few last seconds to attack, stab and kill members of the opposing team. Sometimes it’s satisfying to blow away a rival player after the match, but it always feels like a cheap shot after the whistle has blown. So, I made a choice, after each match, to sit down, a way of reminding myself that while it’s “just a game” it’s also a genuine interaction with other real people who have real feelings, hopes and dreams, and who are deserving of my good will.
Sometimes, when I settle down to take a seat, other players will stick a grenade to my face and I have to watch my lifeless body go flying through the air as the match stats roll. It’s not very glorious.
Yet, every once and awhile, a rival will come charging at me guns blazing with a final insult kill. When they stop unexpectedly as I take a seat and sit down beside me, we are no longer enemies. We see beyond the game, beyond our avatars, that we are still two people connected for a moment, tenuously online, and that how we behave in those interactions matter. ♦