When the excellent internet-culture podcast TLDR tweeted a couple weeks ago that its new episode featured an interview with someone who witnessed her persona within a certain video game get sexually assaulted by other human players, I had an immediate guess which game they’d name. I was right: the incident occurred in DayZ, a popular MMO with a nominal post-apocalyptic survival theme.
My knowledge of DayZ is quite limited. I’ve never played it. I have had one friend, a inveterate fan of actual role-playing in online RPGs, regale me at length about all the time she’d spent there with an online improv group, experiencing varying success at playing out story-games in its setting. When the game got a wider release on Steam last year, I read a long comment-thread on imgur about all the goofy ways new players had died, with a strange focus on other players force-feeding them rotten fruit or drain cleaner.
And then, earlier this year, I discovered this video, following a link describing it as something amazing that happened in the game. With my lack of knowledge about typical interactions in DayZ, and otherwise not knowing what to expect (outside of the video’s title), I found the first 40 seconds — which isn’t supposed to be the amazing part — very stressful to watch.
Those 40 seconds contain one of the most violent exchanges I have ever seen in a video game, even though (modulo some casual language) the incident, if dramatized on film, wouldn’t rate more than a PG in the US. In one sense, it’s just two men talking; neither so much as lays a finger on the either.
The third man who shows up at the 40-second mark is the star of the video, and immediately changes the tone in an unexpected and genuinely impressive direction. But from context, I take it that one player brandishing a gun and verbally instructing an unarmed player to kneel, humiliated, is such a typical interaction in the game that it doesn’t even bear comment. This video uses it as mere stage-setting; one gets the impression that if the third character hadn’t appeared, this player wouldn’t have bothered posting this video.
I have killed, and been killed by, others in online multiplayer videogames like Team Fortress 2 many times, and have never considered that activity gross or personal violence. These games are silly cartoons, and I can take them only as seriously as their verb-sets allow. Pretty much all you can do in TF2 is run around shooting and stabbing people, and all characters are equally powerful. When my character — who is not, by any stretch, “me” — is blown to bloody bits by an enemy rocket, there’s really no route for me to take it as a personal affront. I laugh, and wait for my respawn, where I’ll jump back in just as heavily-armed as I was before.
DayZ shifts this. Most obviously, like other MMOs, it presents players with a vast open world full of countless strangers, most of whom you’ll never see, rather than a fixed arena containing a only a handful of other players. More subtly, it starts all freshly spawned characters as completely weak, unarmed and powerless to do anything except run. Those with enough luck — or cunning — will scrape together enough weapons and other resources to become objectively more powerful than other players. Then it becomes in their interest to maintain this position however they can, because if their character dies, they lose all that stuff and have to start over from the bottom.
An obvious solution to this, then, becomes to prey on weaker characters as you come across them. This is how every typical RPG works, after all, yes? Slay another hundred orcs, take their stuff, go up another level. And other online RPGs have long let you attack and loot other players’ characters. But DayZ, through its design, seems to make this action far more intense and personal than the heavily abstracted violence found in the “PvP” mechanics of fantasy MMOs, let alone that of offline games where one player knows all the other players.
If this were a board game or even a LARP I can imagine any number of in-game mechanic that would allow this to play out. You’d say “OK, my attack is 5 and your defense is 2. That means I rob you!” And I’d say “Argh! OK,” and then let you pick a card from my hand while returning my pawn to home base or whatever. But in DayZ you would say “You: freeze. Good. Now kneel. Don’t try anything stupid.” And I’d kneel, and I’d stay there kneeling while you went through my stuff, and I’d hope you didn’t feel like shooting me anyway.
I’d likely have never heard your voice before, and I’d perhaps never hear from you again, either. This might be our only interaction during our entire lives together on this earth: your putting a gun to my head for a minute in a videogame while you nullify my last few hours’ work within it, all while we can hear each other breathing into our microphones. And then, one way or another, we part company.
I find this equal parts horrifying and fascinating. Obviously, during the exchange in the video, the player controlling the man with the gun cannot literally shoot the other player, sitting in front of his PC. Obviously, the men who cornered the woman as described in the TLDR interview could not, at that moment, physically assault her in reality. And yet, the violence portrayed in these cases does not feel like complete pantomime to me. It feels, on some level, real: one person forcing another to consciously act against their will, under threat of worse harm.
Sure, “it’s all a game”, but the abstractions and safeties one expects in games seem absent. Even if we step out a level, we see a situation where the player of the gunman, sitting at his computer, did in fact force, though threat-laden speech — real speech, delivered in plain English — the player of the shovel-wielder to input the sequence of keypresses and mouseclicks to make his character stop and kneel for inspection, lest he lose that shovel and everything else he’d managed to collect. There were no rules saying he had to do that, as one would find in other games; it was a compelled action, made under duress. I can’t read it any other way.
DayZ does seem to be exploring new territory for what games can do. Objectively, I find that valuable. Because I haven’t played it myself yet, I don’t feel I can pass much judgment on it beyond that. But I can’t hide that I find these stories very interesting, very important, and deeply troubling.