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Science: 

Virtual zombies in ‘Day Z’ prepare us for the real appocalypse

You can't study ethics in real life disaster zones, so the supremely selfish behavior of Day Z fans will have to do...

You can’t study ethics in real life disaster zones, so the supremely selfish behavior of Day Z players will have to do…

In disaster zones, people do what they have to do to survive. A lot of it, they might not be proud of, but it’s pretty hard to measure. You can’t very well head to a disaster zone and start interviewing survivors who might be a little busy surviving, and even if you could, they might legitimately respond with “why are you asking all these damned questions rather than, y’know, helping me?”

For those determined to analyze survival tactics and the resultant guilt, that presents a problem, but Matthieu Guitton, associate professor in the faculty of medicine at Laval University has a solution: video games. Specifically, Day Z, a massively multiplayer online game that pits players as survivors in a zombie apocalypse, having to keep their character alive against the undead as well as other players competing for the scant resources.

Unlike other video games, there are no second chances: when your character dies, you have to start over, losing all the hard-fought advantages you’ve built up. This makes a good – though not perfect – parallel for the desperation of those looking to survive in real-world situations against the odds. Players are not only wary of the zombies, but also the other human players who are often selfish, aggressive and downright duplicitous.

The paper – ‘Surviving at Any Cost: Guild Expression Following Extreme Ethical Conflicts in a Virtual Setting‘ – was compiled by following players around the virtual world, examining their actions in real time, interviewing them afterwards and looking at player reactions on the official forums. According to Guitton in an interview with New Scientist, “Betrayal and selfish behavior are common. Players sometimes express guilt, or ask on forums whether their actions were justified or ethical, leading to many conversations about ethics and behavioral norms,” which doesn’t bode well for when the undead walk the earth, but at least we’ll have the decency to feel bad afterwards.

It has a positive side, though. “Say someone shoots their friend in the leg so that a zombie will attack them, giving the shooter the chance to run away. Later they may feel guilty, and if they spot a new person in the game they might give them food or weapons, even if this leaves them with less for themselves,” explains Guitton.

“People invest a lot emotionally in these games, so it makes sense to study them. It’s not like you’re playing Super Mario and just killing mushrooms,” he explained, making us feel a bit silly for feeling bad for the poor goombas squished while protecting the Mushroom Kingdom’s Royal Family.

But why is studying our possible reactions to a zombie apocalypse important? We already know the best strategy, right? It’s not just about zombies: “Studying behavior using virtual spaces is important: by understanding how people react to catastrophes, we can optimize ways of educating them about appropriate reactions.”

“In Japan, people are trained from childhood on how to react to earthquakes, and there are fewer casualties as a result.”

Given griefing is a thing in gaming, we have to hope that games offer a real insight into how people behave, but we’ll be interested to see where Professor Guitton’s research takes him next.

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