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  • Writer's pictureJosh Whittington

From the Archives - Survivor’s Dilemma: Being Disadvantaged by Morality in DayZ

From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.


This article is an assignment from one of my game theory classes I took at uni in 2012. We were only allowed 1,500 words (give or take 10%, not including citations, captions or footnotes), and were told we could write it in the style of 'New Games Journalism', but were warned that this would be harder to pull off well. I decided to take the risk because I felt this was a lot like my natural writing style, and it paid off as I ended up getting a High Distinction for the course :) I was really happy with this essay, especially given the strict word count which forced me to cut out a lot of it, and made it harder to word myself properly. I had to make full use of image captions to expand my points, which didn't count towards the word counts for whatever reason. I wrote about DayZ, and how it made me ponder about why we act according to real life morals (or don't!) inside virtual worlds. Wix doesn't handle footnotes and captions well, so apologies if the formatting is a bit off.

Original Article:

My friend and I are scouring the roof of an abandoned building. We’re desperately searching for some sustenance to keep us alive, or some ammo for our near empty weapons. Someone calls out from behind us, “Friendly?” “Yes”, I reply as I brace myself, fearing the worst, but surprisingly I’m still alive. Seemingly content, the passerby says goodbye and walks towards the ladder to leave. “Ok, I’m gonna shoot him” my friend says, looking down his scope. “No, don’t!” I say, horrified. His reply is simple “Why not?” And that’s a very good question. This man could have supplies we need. And this isn’t really a post-apocalyptic world, it’s just a game. What reason do I have not to shoot him? What consequences could possibly come about from me shooting this stranger, who I’ll likely never see again, other than him losing some virtual loot? Absolutely none (for me). So why do I insist on being the good guy in games like this? Let’s look at Prisoner’s Dilemma, a paradoxical game in which two players are given two options in each ‘turn’ of the game- to defect or co-operate. Depending on each player’s choices, a differing reward is distributed. If one defects while the other co-operates, the defector gets a reward T, while the other gets a reward S. If both defect, each player gets a reward P, and if both co-operate, each player gets a reward R, with the rewards ranking T > R > P > S. (Nowak et. al, 1994, p.4877). Now, in a single encounter, the choice is obvious: to defect. If you co-operate, and the other player doesn’t, you’ll be stuck with a low score, whereas if you defect, you’ll either have the same score as your opponent or higher. Of course, if you both co-operate you’ll both have a higher score, but that’s assuming neither of you take the ‘optimal’ choice. In DayZ, the ‘Survivor’s Dilemma’ is very much similar to the prisoner’s: to ‘betray’ or co-operate with our fellow survivors. Upon encountering another player, the tiering of rewards based on behaviour is much like that of Prisoner’s Dilemma: T (attacker gets the loot) > R (each get some loot) > P (each may get some loot but ammo’s wasted and you’re injured/dead) > S (you lose out on loot or are injured/killed, attacker gets everything).

DayZ - A Player in the Crosshairs

Mathematically, shooting this man on sight will almost always pay off much more than co-operating or being passive, much like defecting in Prisoner’s Dilemma is the better strategy

Now, obviously this isn’t totally correct as the passive player may survive and retaliate, you may both end up dead etc. but generally speaking this is a fair assumption. Despite it being illogical, people like me still disadvantage ourselves with moral choices in a situation that isn’t real- why? But on the other hand, these are human players playing the game, how can others disregard this and let go of their real world morals? There’s a commonly referred to model used when talking about games (videogames or otherwise), known as the ‘magic circle’. This is the idea that the there’s a ‘boundary’ separating the goals, events and ideas of the game’s reality from our own reality, e.g. kicking a ball into a net is the objective of soccer, but outside of the game it’s totally meaningless (Adams, 2009, pp.6-9). And it’s a combination of these rules and the ‘narrative’ of the game that forms the ethics and morals within the game’s magic circle. The ethics being what is permitted in the game based off its ‘rules’, and morals being what is acceptable within the game based off of our real life values (Rauch, 2007, pp.22-24). While DayZ doesn’t have a ‘narrative’ per se, it has a ‘backstory’- that a zombie apocalypse has taken place, and you’re one of the few survivors. The only goal you are given is to survive. This means that anything you do within the game (permitted by the game’s code of course) is 100% ethical, including killing players.

Assassin's Creed II - Ezio Kills a Civillian

A lot of games have restrictions on player behaviour. In the Assassin’s Creed series, players are warned to stop killing civilians, and are given a ‘game over’ of sorts should they continue to

In DayZ, players are free to play the game in whatever way the code permits them to, and they each have their own set of morals. There’s no law, no pop ups indicating a loss of Karma/Honour/Humanity* etc. in order to force players to play a certain way in line with some sort of moral code or ‘objective’ for the player to complete. Within the confines of DayZ’s magic circle, players can do whatever they choose, and once they’re out of this circle, nothing within is of any relevance or consequence. So when there’s no negative consequence, it’s natural to expect people to play to ‘win’, without a regard for other ‘characters’, because it’s “just a game”, and experiments have proven this to be the case (Shafer, 2012). But is it just this ‘play to win’ mentality that motivates them? Studies by Spronck et. al (2012) suggest that there’s a link between our personality and the way we play videogames, which isn’t to suggest the players would take the same course of action in real life, but rather personality traits (such as aggression or introversion) are influencing their choices. Games journalist, and avid DayZ player, Jamie Dalzell says that when playing games, “[he doesn’t] transform into another character, they transform into [him]” (2012a), in reference to the fact that when given a choice in games, he will make the one he thinks he, personally, would make. He approached DayZ differently, however, and decided to play the role of a ‘bandit’, who targets other players. Before long he finds it a “thrill”’ (Dalzell, 2012b) to trick other players and rob them of their loot (and their lives) and continues this for most of his time with the game. This new approach, which he describes as a “third voice” separate from the metaphorical angel and devil on his shoulder (Dalzell 2012c), can be seen as a part of him manifesting. But I don't think that's it. The bandits of DayZ don't do so because they're horrible, sadistic people. They can simply accept it as “just a game”. In studies that analyse players' behaviour and motivation, this seems to be a common phrase. “It's just a game” (Shafer, 2012). By “disengaging” themselves from the game, they can enjoy themselves without being weighed down by morals. They can explore all sorts of situations, approaching them as just a game (Hartmann, Verderer, 2010). They can do something I can't- disengage from the game. Let's look at the magic circle from another angle, using Adams' (2009, pp.8-9) sport metaphor. In a game of rugby, it's perfectly permissible to tackle someone, but not outside after the game. BUT, how many times has a fight broken out because one player didn't like the way the other tackled them? When games have more than one player, they have a link to the outside world.

Skyrim - Cinematic Kill

If I go around slaughtering all the citizens of Tamriel in Skyrim, that all happens within the magic circle, and upon turning off the game, it's as if it never happened. It was all my experience that I played how I want. It didn't affect anyone.

If I were to kill a player in DayZ, and turn off the game, it's persistent. What I just did did in fact happen, I made someone play my way, and they were affected by it. That was another person scavenging Chernarus, slowly gathering supplies and keeping themselves alive. They've invested as much time and emotion into their character as I have, and if I kill them, I've robbed them of that. I've been killed unjustly many times, and it feels horrible. I can't bring myself to inflict that on someone else. It's interesting, in a competitive game like Battlefield I don't think twice about killing another player. It's still another person on the end, it's still someone in the same situation as me, trying to succeed with their character. I can unload a full magazine into military personnel, but not a post-apocalyptic survivor. Rauch (2007, pp.24-25) suggests that the way we apply our morals to a game world depends on the “symbols” used to represent its mechanics and I think this explains it all.

DayZ - A Group of Survivors

These aren’t just representations of code, they’re people, trying to get by in an unforgiving world.

In Battlefield, these are all soldiers, expected to kill on sight to protect their homeland. They know what they're getting into and what to expect. The 'ethics' of the game implore me to kill, and the other players to kill me. There are no other options. We can't have a diplomatic discussion with the enemy to make them withdraw peacefully. But in DayZ, I see the other players as people just like me. Not friends, not foes, just people, getting by. I can't justify 'immoral' actions in this game. I'm not alone, when people can’t justify the ‘immoral’ acts they perform in videogames, they feel a sense of guilt. But those that can, like DayZ’s bandits, can go on just fine (Hartmann, Verderer, 2012). The brutality of survival in this post-apocalyptic world has made them consider all available actions to them. They see no reason to not shoot their fellow virtual man. But I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to fire at someone unprovoked. The 'characters' in DayZ feel so human, and while we do so through different means, and with different motivation, we're all playing for the same goal- survival. So can I really blame these people for what they do, when at its base it's the same thing I'm doing?

There's no reason for me to not abandon my real world morals when playing DayZ. I often act immorally in singleplayer games. I have no qualms putting people down in competitive games. But DayZ? It's a different beast. It plays with your mind. Its permanent death mechanics make you treasure each of your characters' existences, and treat their lives as your own. So when the slightest mistake could cost you your life, it would make sense to take the logical, safest option in a confrontation- shoot. There's no time for questions or conversations in this unforgiving world. But I can't. I can't see these characters as anything less than people. Sparing them, and having them spare me, would be a win-win situation for all of us. But we know it's not that simple. We know it makes more sense to just shoot. This is the Survivor's Dilemma. As you play DayZ, it soon becomes clear- in order to keep your character alive, your self must die. But it's just a game. Isn't it?


* A recent patch added in a ‘Humanity’ system which measures a player’s ‘morals’ and provides them with a Bandit skin if they are ‘evil’ and a Hero skin if they are ‘good’, but this essay is dealing with the previous version of the game which did not have this, which was a better system I feel.

Works Cited

Adams, E., Games and Video Games. In: 2009, Fundamentals of Game Design (2nd Edition). s.l.:New Riders, pp. 4-31.

Dalzell, J., 2012a. All in My Head: A DayZ Journal – Part 1. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 11 2012].

Dalzell, J., 2012b. All in My Head: A DayZ Journal – Part 3. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 11 2012].

Dalzell, J., 2012c. All in My Head: A DayZ Journal – Part 4. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 11 2012].

Martin A. Nowak, S. B., R. M. M., 1994. Spatial games and the maintenance of cooperation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91(11).

Pieter Spronck, I. B., G. v. L., 2012. Player Profiling with Fallout 3. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 11 2012].

Rauch, P., 2007. Playing with Good and Evil: Videogames and Moral Philosophy. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 11 2012].

Shafer, D. M., 2012. Moral Choice in Video Games: An Exploratory Study. Media Psychology Review, 5(1).

Tilo Hartmann, P. V., 2010. It’s Okay to Shoot a Character: Moral Disengagement in Violent Video Games Journal of Communication, 60(1).

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