DayZ and new experiments in interplayer violence

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.

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6 Responses to DayZ and new experiments in interplayer violence

  1. Baf says:

    See Jesper Juul's notion of the "half-real": when a player in a MMORPG gives another player some gold in exchange for a magic sword, neither the gold nor the sword is real, but nonetheless the exchange involves and affects real people, and that makes it in many senses a real exchange.

    In the same way, what you describe here is a real mugging.

  2. Phen says:

    I've never played this game (or the other recent games like it) myself, but I too find it fascinating. No "real" property is being stolen, but harm is still being done in the form of progress (representing hours of work) being destroyed. Since it is a videogame, the bandits can justify it as partly consensual -- you can opt in or out of a videogame that strongly features this sort of interaction, whereas you can't opt out of real life. I think it's THIS, even more than the "not real violence" concept, that allows people to bypass normal empathy.

    What I'm looking forward to is seeing whether players can eventually develop some sort of society. In a world where empathy and "common decency" are short-circuited (because of the voluntary nature of existing), will players ever organize to put together a "police force" discouraging robbery? Will enough players even think that's worth trying, or does it defeat the point of the game? I can imagine tribes and competing states forming, but things could just as easily remain in total anarchy for the entire history of the game.

  3. TJ Radcliffe says:

    Fascinating post...

    This is pretty much why I don't play this kind of game, ever. Some people can abstract away the real interpersonal violence that's going on behind the cartoon interface in other games, and more power to them. I can't.

    Furthermore, the value being taken from the other player by threat of force here is real: the *time* it took to accumulate those goods is no less valuable to the person being robbed than the time it took to accumulate money or whatever in any other similar situation (I won't say in the "real world" because to in-game world is as real as any other... it is just constituted rather differently, from bits rather than atoms.) Likewise, the threat is real: one person has the ability to impose a high cost on the other at low cost to themselves.

    This seems to me some of the value of games of this kind: they let people who are that-way minded engage their destructive impulses in ways that are somewhat more benign than they would be in other circumstances. It is only natural to expect that the degree of realism will increase over time, and game mechanics will be found that impose increasing real-world costs to in-game actions that enhance the emotional impact of interpersonal violence.

    The primary reason why people engage in interpersonal violence is because it feels good: trade, co-operation and collaboration are almost always objectively better ways of solving issues of scarcity. In a world where interpersonal violence is increasingly inaccessible to most people, surrogates of this kind may help them experience the feelings associated with it in a "safe" context... for them.

    For their victims--and there are always victims--the same degree of real emotional engagement, trauma and loss are the necessary complement to the aggressor's high. How this is going to play out over time is not clear. No one thinks they are going to be a victim, so maybe people will still be willing to play even given the risks, but it seems pretty bizarre to me, though frankly no less bizarre than the desire to be an aggressor. I can see incentive structures that would still encourage people to play while maximizing profits, but they aren't pretty.

    It is worth noting, as always in these discussions, that sexual assault in particular is not a man/woman issue, but a predator/citizen issue: only about 10% of men are really driven to experience this kind of aggressive behaviour, based on the data. And their victims have a less strongly sex-skewed ratio than one might naively think. It would be fascinating to see the DayZ data logs to see if was possible to identify such interactions and on that basis determine how often people playing as males are sexually assaulted in-game. According to FBI data about 10% of reported victims of sexual assault are male, but we really have no idea to what degree men under-report sexual assault. Games like this might eventually give us some access to data that no one is very interested in collecting in the atomic world.

  4. Jason McIntosh says:

    I disagree with no single point of TJ's comment, but feel obliged to follow up by echoing the #yesallwomen hashtag that appeared on Twitter last weekend, after the Californian tragedy which occurred (with chilling coincidence) shortly after I posted this essay.

    It acknowledges that, yes indeed, the vast majority of men aren't predators. But beyond the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims are women, all women in our culture need to put up with an unceasing background-noise of violent intent, caricatured but by no means limited to catcalls on the street -- something that men, by and large, need never fear. The interviewee I linked to in this piece said that as much as she enjoyed this game she knew it was only a matter of time before something sexually gross happened to her on it, by way of another player. I very much doubt that nearly as many male players as female have thoughts like that.

    • TJ Radcliffe says:

      To be clear, I don't dispute that all women have to put up with such constant abrasion of their autonomy, and that is a serious and shameful situation. I simply want to emphasize that the data back up the boilerplate modern feminist doctrine that patriarchy is bad for and harmful to the majority of all genders.

      But I do dispute that "the vast majority of sexual assault victims are women". That may be true, but we don't have good data on the question and what we do have leaves a disturbing gap in our knowledge that--even more disturbingly--no one is rushing to fill.

      We know that 10% of reported sexual assaults have male victims (and generally male perpetrators, although the perpetrators rarely identify as homosexuals). We do not know--and there has been almost zero study of--how frequently male victimization goes unreported. We know that the rate of non-report amongst women is high (50 - 60% go unreported, which has been fairly well studied). It is at least plausible that men under-report at significantly higher rates than women, and as such men may be a very significant minority of sexual assault victims. It would surprise me but not completely floor me if men turned out to be victimized at comparable rates to women, although most people would scoff at that based on their intuition... but I'm too aware of too much that has been scoffed at for too long based on similar intuitions to give such judgements much credence.

      As such, I am uncomfortable with strong claims that the vast majority of victims are female, in part because I think such a presumption tends to make it even less likely for male victims to come forward, because it may make them feel more alone in their victimization (this is speculative, I acknowledge.)

      So in response to #yesallwomen I want to say: #notjustwomen.

      My hope is that by reframing the issue of assault in this way we can move past the defensive posture that so many men bring to the table, and actually unite against the predators who cause so much misery for all of us.

      This is a topic that understandably raises hackles when the conventional wisdom is challenged, and I appreciate that there are people reading this who may think I am an MRA in a sane person's clothing, but I believe the data bear out what I am saying. See for example:

  5. ruthling says:

    A guy I follow on LJ has been posting about his brother's exploits in DayZ which are both some of the funniest shit I've ever read, and absolutely totally convince me I want nothing whatsoever to do wit this game. I think the first post on the subject is here:

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