Righting The Ship

Design, DayZ, and navigating evil.

By: Drew Dixon

Filed Under: Editorial Horror Life Social

Most modern psychologists believe that man created religion to cope with the uncertainty of life in a dangerous world. People need something to put their hope with the possibility of disaster always around the corner. This is nothing new, this last week saw a surge in prayers for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, our President quoting the Bible and encouraging others to offer prayers of their own. The presence of such “evil” things, however, also represents one of the most common arguments against the validity of religion. The problem of evil simultaneously represents, for many, the rise and fall of religion.

DayZ is as much a social experiment as it is a game. It serves as something of a digital exploration of the problem of evil and Dean “Rocket” Hall is the deist god who created it. Hall made Chernarus and then handed it entirely over to players. Deists believe that God created the world and then left it to its own devices. Thus, in the deist view, evil is the result of human free choices. Thus, in this view the “problem of evil” can only be overcome by man, as “God” has willingly removed himself from the equation. In such a view, the future of the world rests in the hands of its creatures. This is what Hall wanted—a world with an open future. A world that players could redeem or destroy.

In a recent interview with Edge Magazine, Hall said:

I would get annoyed when I heard people talk about PVP [player vs player] or PVE [player versus enemy] and singleplayer, and how they couldn’t coexist. But if you look at DayZ it takes all those and says, ‘You’re all going to share the same world, so you’ll just have to decide amongst yourselves where the balance is.’ And at the moment, obviously, the balance is that people are attacking each other. But there are definitely examples of people banding together. Maybe now that DayZ has a large number of players that’s something that can really develop. And that’s not something that’s in the designer’s control, necessarily, and I think that’s really good. Maybe that’s the attraction to some people – that it’s trying to be a real open world in that sense.

No matter what Hall had hoped DayZ would become, it is clear that Chernarus is currently incredibly dark. In the early days of DayZ, the average player survived for about 20-30 minutes. In my short time in DayZ, only two of the ten characters I created were killed by zombies, the others were betrayed or murdered by fellow players. At the time of writing, 8,222,676 murders have been committed in DayZ.

While Chernarus is a digital world, the way players have been interacting implicitly acknowledges something about the real world – it is a dangerous place. Whatever our presuppositions about the root of this darkness, we can all agree that the world is not what we want it to be. We don’t need to play games like DayZ to acknowledge this reality. We see evidences of this brokenness every time we time we watch the news, surf the web, and look in the mirror.

Hall saw the darkness of the world he created and was not pleased. In the early days of the game, players entered the world with a weapon. Hall had wanted to insert players into the world without a weapon but doing so was impractical due to how the zombies were programmed to detect and attack players.  Hall reflected on this in his interview with Edge:

It meant that having no weapon was impractical. As that got refined and, I could tenuously say, improved, that changed things and we were presented with the opportunity. What it does is give players the chance, very early on, to build trust with someone. Now obviously there are lots of people who’ll just kill them outright, and I’ve experienced this several times myself. But you don’t present a threat to those players that would have killed you just because you presented a threat. So it does give you an opportunity to build trust – and what we need to do is provide those opportunities.

Hall saw the darkness of the world he created and set out to do something to change it. Currently, players survive one hour and nine minutes–more than double the length from when I first started playing. Perhaps that is because they have gotten better at surviving or perhaps it is because Hall took away their weapons. Chernarus is a digitial world, so players may feel their actions lack consequence, however Hall’s attempts to influence the future of the world he created brings up some interesting questions about the real world.

While Hall wanted to create a player-shaped world, it seems he wasn’t content to leave the players to themselves. He stepped in and tweaked the design, and it seems that the world is changing because of it. It would be foolish to draw a one to one correlation between DayZ and the real world, however, it is interesting that DayZ was meant as something of a social experiment to see how real people would shape a digital world and it’s creator wasn’t content to hand his world completely over to players.

Despite our efforts many to reform the world through education, it is still plagued by horrific evil. Despite the United States being one of the most educated countries in the world, it remains a hotbed of gun violence. Since Columbine, there have been 78 gun massacres in U.S. schools and when someone steps into an elementary school and opens fire on children, we cannot help but wonder whether the world isn’t getting worse. We’d like to think future tragedies like Sandy Hook could be prevented through legislation. But consider the response of gun owners in our country if the state attempted to confiscate the nearly 300 million guns in their possession. True reform would require that human beings trust and listen to each other, things we have given each other reason not to do. Education may have led us to progress but has that progress made us any less violent?

And yet, our world isn’t as dark and broken as it could be. It is difficult to recognize in the midst of tragedies like the one in Newtown, but we have made some progress. The United States is an unusually violent country but we are not as violent as we used to be—mass shootings like Sandy Hook may be on the rise but gun violence in our country as a whole is on the decline. And despite all our problems, people living in the United States enjoy more civil liberties than ever before. Perhaps this is because people are getting better at navigating the darkness or perhaps it is because someone is tweaking the design and restraining the decay. Hall’s attempts to “give players the chance, very early on, to build trust with someone” in his digital world makes me wonder how anyone could be confident we aren’t being given similar chances in the real one.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Editorial Horror Life Social

About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.

5,147 Responses to “Righting The Ship”

  1. Chris

    In my time with Day Z, I spent a great deal of time puzzling over a) how I’d reform the game world to encourage greater socializing and civilizing and b) how to defend my position that the high rate of murder was not “realistic,” as many players claimed, but wholly and deeply disturbing.

    Our world and Day Z’s world have many similarities and many differences, though the most important of the latter is this: the darkness of this world is purposed for our salvation, but the darkness of Day Z’s world is purposed for our pleasure. I freely admit to loving shooter games, but I found Day Z to be too haunting for me in more ways than one.

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