The town is just out there in the near distance, a cluster of houses amid acres of flat scrubland. I can’t see any movement, there’s no sound except birdsong, but the buildings are a two minute run away. If I break cover and another player is nearby, I know they will shoot me. They will shoot me and loot my body. That is the reality of DayZ.
Still only available as an early alpha build on Steam, but already immensely popular, Dean Hall’s bleak, utterly unsentimental zombie survival game is unbearably tense and atmospheric. Players are pitched together into a stark landscape, and must survive for as long as possible, ransacking buildings for guns and food and avoiding the undead. But just as in all the best zombie fiction, it’s not the rotting monsters you often have to worry about, it’s the other survivors. Each server houses up to 40 players, all desperately scavenging for the same meagre supplies. And if you kill another participant, you can take their stuff. There is a clear benefit to adopting a “shoot first” policy.
We see the same thing now in GTA Online, the vast multiplayer spin-off from Grand Theft Auto V. Players hit Los Santos, engaging in criminal missions and tasks, but when they’re off duty they just cruise the streets in stolen cars, looking for trouble. And trouble often means being anti-social – chasing down and shooting other players, or camping out near key hotspots like custom garages and ammo stores blasting anyone who walks in. Just for kicks. Rockstar sometimes punishes such players, introducing a “bad sport” scheme to highlight them to others. It’s gaming’s equivalent of an ASBO – and we all know how effective those have been.
Spawn to kill
There are obvious reasons why this happens. Gamers have been conditioned by a generation of successful online shooters like Call of Duty and Quake to view other participants as targets. In Call of Duty, there is no other motivation beyond killing, that’s what you’re there for. And from the very beginning of video games we have the intrinsic thrill of the shoot-kill feedback loop; it is the most clear, instant and satisfying interactive sequence this medium has ever produced. Shooting doesn’t require realistic visuals or complex game systems – in the great arcade shooters of the late-seventies, you had left, right and fire – those were your interactions with the game world. Even the word ‘fire button’ has aggressive connotations. That’s what it always was – an aggressive act committed on the game world.
Games are enormously complex now – and yet we’re still being channeled down this zero-sum interaction channel: shoot or die.
If you consider this at a systemic level, shooting always makes sense in a moment of indecision. It’s like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the famous behavioural experiment that shows altruism, trust and co-operation are often unworkable factors when you don’t know what the other participant is thinking. In DayZ, you always have more to gain from shooting a stranger: not only are you safe, you also have a resource to plunder. Theoretically, a new player could be a good asset to your squad, but how do you know? In the split second you often have to decide these things, the diplomacy of the bullet makes more sense.
In the past, game designers have often sought to counter the problem by brute-forcing co-operative behaviour. “World of Warcraft kind of solved this issue by making missions where you had to form a group in order to complete them,” says game developer Byron Atkinson-Jones, whose shooter, Blast Em is heading to Steam soon . “In this situation, the obstacles – as in things to kill – were just too much for one person to attempt alone. The reward for helping a fellow player then was completing the mission and leveling up.”
It looks like this will be the system employed in Bungie’s forthcoming massively multiplayer space opera Destiny. Although there will be assigned player v player combat zones, if two sets of participants bump into each other during campaign missions, they’ll only be able to work together to complete the task. Battlefield developer DICE has added whole layers of co-operative intricacy into its team modes, introducing squads and commanders to initiate group tactics. But once again, we’re only really talking about co-operation on a mechanistic level.
There can of course, be genuine humanity in that. “Team games like Dota 2 and Battlefield semi-force you to cooperate with strangers by putting you on the same team,” says game designer Michael Brough. “It is kind of a blunt instrument, but it’s still up to the players whether to actually cooperate. Quite often in Dota, if someone dies early on it gives the opposing team an advantage, then people start blaming each other and arguing, teamwork falls apart and you start falling even further behind…
“sometimes the team breaks down completely, someone gives up and disconnects from the game or refuses to play, but other times the team gets over their disagreement and starts pulling together and can even go on to win. When this happens it’s quite beautiful.”
Meanwhile, in most online games, especially MMORPGs, all the really meaty social interaction is effectively outsourced to the players themselves through the guild system. Friends have to get together in meat space, agree to form a team, use microphones and often third-party chat software to communicate, and then enter the game world as a unit. In this way, all the emotional drama is effectively happening between the members of the social group – the game just happens to be where it’s taking place. In many ways, online role-playing games are venues of collaborative play not instigators. Certainly, players will meet in the world and form friendships, but the impetus and the heft of the social interaction happens on the periphery of the game experience.
Is there a way for game designers to encourage and reward more advanced social relationships between strangers? Is there a way to balance out the allure of deadly violence? “Generally if you want to encourage some kind of activity in a game, it’s not a terrible idea to just try explicitly rewarding it in the most obvious way possible,” says Brough. “Like, maybe that won’t work and you’ll need something more subtle, but it’s the first thing to try. So if you want to encourage some kind of cooperative activity, make numbers go up when people do it. When you trade items they get bigger, when you craft items they get a bonus for the number of people involved. Basically, positive-sum interactions rather than zero- or negative-sum.”
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Atkinson-Jones agrees: “It’s strange to think about having to reward being friendly but it’s certainly possible. You could provide an achievement for being around a fellow player for a certain period of time without killing them. That could actually lead to hilarious situations where you get a group of players all hugging together, trying to get that achievement – although once one of them has gotten it, they would probably start opening fire – almost a ‘who blinks first’ situation from a Tarantino film.”
The key then would be in incentivising positive group behaviours rather than allowing violence to be at the tip of every interaction tree. A group could receive a health or XP boost by taking on newcomers. Perhaps designers could introduce certain resources that can only be shared rather than looted from dead bodies. More violently, there could be a sort of self-destruct item, which destroys a player’s inventory when they’re killed by another human participant.
Of course, this is a very mechanical way of thinking about things – but perhaps that’s necessary. We need to be realistic: altruism is rare in nature – animals that appear to be behaving selflessly toward each other are merely indulging in mutually beneficial, highly reciprocal relationships. Lions form prides, not because they totally love each other, but because unless your prey is old and weak, you need more than one hunter to bring down a wildebeest. Ant hives aren’t social institutions, they are machines. Even in the most intelligent species such as apes and dolphins, totally altruistic acts are exceptional; protecting the group usually makes sense from a survival perspective. As for humans, we see from the logic of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that although self-interest has its costs, it often carries far lower risks.
But it’s sort of sad to think of games – and gamers – in this way. DayZ is a thrilling evocation of zombie fiction, but what it can’t capture in the same way as linear media like The Walking Dead or Day of the Dead, is the interplay between survival groups – those tense moments when one set of desperate people meets another. In the TV series The Walking Dead, much of the emotional depth comes not from the shoot-outs, but from those first meetings and negotiations – the myriad opposing forces working on every encounter. In this world, it is not always best to shoot first – and that provides the cathartic thrill. And really, if Walking Dead was simply about shooting, it would be be pretty unwatchable. It’s the relationships that form between, say, Maggie and Glenn or Michonne and Andrea, that keep us engaged. Amid the slaughter and the fear, the narrative requires human interaction and emotional drama. It’s how we invest.
And it’s not just the game systems that prevent this in titles like DayZ and GTA Online, it’s the paucity of interaction depth. Visual limitations mean we can’t read the body language and eye movements of our fellow players, and these are the vital unconscious clues to intent that we pick up constantly in real life. Few games expand their gesture sets beyond taunts, and even fewer provide amiable collaborative ventures. In GTA Online, there’s not a whole lot you can do with another player once you’ve decided not to shoot them. You can’t communicate, you can’t do anything except launch a mission together and work side by side. You can’t take them on a date, you can’t make promises and plans, you can’t develop. DayZ allows microphone chat, which at least adds verbal communication, but this can be horribly jarring. Hearing a 12-year-old drawl at you through earphones while their muscular twenty-something avatar idles on screen doesn’t do much for your suspension of disbelief.
The heart of the matter
So really, can we encourage emotional interplay between strangers in online games? Because that’s obviously the key; that is what provides the complexity of human relationships in the real world. One way is to remove violence altogether. Thatgamecompany did this beautifully with Journey, distilling interaction down to the ability to follow and lead, and to make one simple sound. No names were visible and there was no vocal communication. Yet even with such limited materials, players were able to build profound relationships, even if they were fleeting and ethereal. We don’t need much to get along.
But DayZ isn’t Journey – there’s no such thing as a mystical zombie art-game (though, dammit, I sort of wish there was now). Killing is a vital part of the experience – as it is with GTA Online. So we’re back to this one apparent requirement: the commodification of friendship. The introduction of systems that make the prospect of collaboration a beneficial one. The next time I’m outside a small town in DayZ, I want to know I can wander in there, meet another player and have a bargaining chip or two. Already, players are using a raised arm gesture as one of friendship, or they’re yelling “peaceful” down the microphone – but these simple digital acts are open to abuse and without visual complexity, it’s all meaningless. Which is a shame because from listening to more experienced players, some of the most profound and enjoyable experiences have come out of hooking up with strangers and exploring together.
This isn’t going to be popular, but I wonder if some form of bio-input is the ultimate answer. Valve Software has experimented with biometric feedback in the past, looking into peripherals that read your heart rate and alter the game accordingly. We know that Kinect can trace fluctuations in skin colour to monitor your heart rate too. Perhaps one day that data will be available to other players. You’re approaching a group of survivors with your arms raised, but the camera sees you sweating; a message comes up on the other player’s screen: “heart rate rising”. What they do with that information is up to them. But they have it.
And that’s the underlying truth, I fear. Emotion is about information; friendship and love are governed by data – you need to collect enough to trust someone. I think the first game that really truly figures this out will be the biggest game in the world.