Our current lab project involves studying the DayZ forums, in order to have a look at user behaviour. If you’re not familiar with DayZ, it’s a zombie apocalypse game where you have no skill and no levels, only weapons and stuff to survive in the wild. The game is simply about surviving zombies, and escaping from the other players who will try to kill you. It has received a lot of hype due to its “permadeath” feature: if your character dies, it dies for real. Meaning, you respawn three seconds later without your equipment at a random spot on the map. Not extremely impressive, but it’s far more traumatic than in average online games, where you respawn three metres before with all your stuff and are ready to start fighting again. All in all, it’s an interesting idea, and it has started a whole lot of discussion about DayZ being more ‘social experiment’ than game.
Of course, that claim is slightly sensationalistic. DayZ is a ‘social experiment’ as long as you consider that it would be useful to know what a bunch of orphaned teenagers with no ties, no skills and no responsisbilities in the world might do in a world filled with zombies and an insane amount of weapons. Studying the stories of gamers is nonetheless fascinating, especially since they have very complicated and varied way to relate to other users, and to killing and dying. The forums are replete with endless discussions about the ethics of ‘killing on sight’ (a favourite pasttime of a number of people in game, it seems), and whether humans would really act like that if there was a real apocalypse.
Forums being what they are, there’s a lot of disagreements, insults and the occasional well-thought-out reflexion every now and then. It’s mostly what you would expect (are humans animals? is morality a biological feature?), and very few opinions are actually backed by any sort of scientific literature. And as you’d expect in that kind of context, a great many people are happy to go on at length about how others have ‘too much faith in humanity’, how ‘killing on sight is human nature’, and how generalised pessimism is the only way to survive in this cold, harsh hell of a world.
I know, teenagers can be so endearing sometimes.
It’s funny, because the more I think about it, the more I seem to notice that these pessimistic attitudes are uncannily present when groups are more privileged. People who live in peaceful parts of the world are strangely likely to tell you that war will never end because it’s human nature, even though they live in places where thye are lucky enough to be unaffected by war (or where they have a choice to be affected or not, like in the USA). Men will say that rape is normal and that nothing will put an end to it, even though they are living proof that some people can, in fact, lie their lives without ever having to take the possibility of assault into account. Rich people will tell you that socialism doesn’t have a chance to ever work anywhere, as if redistribution of wealth was something they couldn’t do anything about, even though they do have the possibility to redistribute a little if they choose to.
I blogged about A Song of Ice and Fire a while ago, and how ‘grimdark’ fantasy bothers me, because it’s far more voyeuristic than realist, as a rule. It seems very unhealthy to me that the more privileged some people are, the more they seem to be attracted by very pessimistic worldviews that they parade as ‘realism’. It’s very easy to talk about human nature when you’re thoroughly unaffected by violence or oppression yourself. It’s very, very easy to draw absolutely-not-racist examples from wars in Africa or hurricane Katrina to explain that men are animals and will turn against each other given half a chance, except in Oklahoma where they behave decently when there’s a tornado (Absolutely Not Racist, right?). It’s really great when you get to sound like a cynical soldier who’s seen it all, just because you’ve watch the news from your couch a couple of times; then it’s a great excuse to do absolutely nothing, or to dismiss any talk about change with a ‘Yeah, of course I agree with you, but your pretty ideals won’t do anything about it because that’s humanity for you’. And then you get the added benefit of telling people who would actually like to do something that they’re ‘typical Western middle-class idealists’ and that they should see the ‘real world’ before they have the gall to form an opinion. See the real world? So should you. Just because you’ve watched the news about Hurricane Katrina doesn’t make you a universal expert on human nature.
The funniest thing in those forum debates is that I’ve yet to see someone point out that in the real world, people would have families to protect, their children’s future to think about, and they would definitely have to find a solution to survive once all the hospitals have been looted of their bloodbags and drugs and the world runs out of tins of ready-to-eat food. In a zombie apocalypse, your mum won’t be waiting for you with your dinner. Perhaps that’s why you should wait until you’re safely out of your teenage years before you form an opinion on what ‘human nature’ is. Assuming such a thing can be summed up in one sentence, of course.