Psychology of the Apocalypse

It is night. The sky is black; the moon is little more than an idyllic memory and even the faint light of the starscape is shrouded by clouds.  After hours of slowly creeping along the coast, careful to avoid Zeds and other Survivor’s alike; I arrive at Chernogorsk, the capital of Chernarus. I’ve finally made it to the honeypot – guns, ammunition, bandages, maps and enough beans to see a man well fed throughout the apocalypse.

First on my hit list is the supermarket. I slowly feel my way towards a slightly lighter shade of pitch black that I know to be the white walls of the supermarket.  I enter through the rear entrance using my memory to guide me; I’ve been here before, in another life. Peering into the empty darkness I stop, and I wait. Silence, beautiful silence. Satisfied no Zed’s are stumbling around, I pop a Chemlight and throw it down the hall, lighting the world with a pale blue glow. A frigid room of empty metal shelves stares me back.  I move through the back of the supermarket scavenging what I can – Some bandages, a can of sardines, a Pepsi. With the storeroom thoroughly looted, I move on to the front portion of the supermarket and find myself face to face – gun to gun – with another survivor.

What happens next?

It’s the classic Prisoners Dilemma.  He could shoot me, or I could shoot him, and we would be free to take each other’s hard earned beans and weapons.  What’s more, if I shoot him he can’t shoot me. I’ll be safe, alive, and free to carry on without fear. Or, we could leave each other alone and go our separate ways; there is enough in the supermarket for both of us, and the sound of a gunshot will only attract more trouble: Zed’s, or worse, bandits.  We could even trade information, work together and watch each other’s back as allies in an unforgiving world.

I like to think of myself as a good person, and I am an idealist at heart – somewhat grudgingly so. I’d rather leave this guy to his own story then end it here out of fear or personal gain. After all, I’m in the same position and I know I’d rather come out alive. I open the chat window to let him know I’m friendly – but I think too much. He doesn’t.

The sound of gunfire fills my ears and my vision blurs red as I see myself fall to the ground. The familiar hourglass of unconsciousness fills my computer monitor as my character bleeds out on the floor of a supermarket before the other survivors sees fit to put another one in my head. The ‘you are dead’ screen appears, and I let out a deep breath; I had been holding it since first spotting the survivor.

The last issue of my university magazine on dit featured an article about the game Prisonbreak in Counter-strike.  The writer made an apt comparison between Prisonbreak and Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment. He questioned how easy it was for the same thing to happen in a virtual world, and why he would subject himself to the same abuse every night for ‘fun.’ Since reading that article, I have been analyzing the way I interact with people in online games, but none more so than the ARMA 2 mod ‘Day Z.’

Day Z is a Zombie apocalypse survival simulator. The only goal in this cruel world is to Survive – and it’s harder than it sounds. The average player life is 33 minutes, according to the official website, and I’m inclined to believe it. Day Z is not your standard video game – A player spawns somewhere on the coast of a fictional eastern European country ‘Chernarus’ with two cans of beans, a box of painkillers, a water bottle and a pistol with a few clips. To survive, you need to eat and drink regularly; you need to stay warm or you’ll get sick, but not too warm or you’ll suffer a heatstroke. If you lose too much blood, you’ll fall unconscious. In theory, the major danger of the 224 square kilometer game world is the zombies that shamble around hungry for flesh and brains. In theory.

I’ve fallen to other survivors far more frequently than zombies or heatstroke. Meeting someone in Chernarus is dangerous business, as they are just as likely to shoot you in the head for whatever happens to be stuffed in your backpack. The only way to efficiently recover blood is to get a transfusion – but another player has to perform it on you. Unless you have a friend who can come and help, whoever you arrange to meet is more likely to shoot you in the face than heal a potential backstabber.  The other day I saw a player pleading for help on the chat, offering a Lee Enfield rifle for whoever helped him with a transfusion.  He gave his location publicly, and rather naively responded to questions about what else he had on him. When the help showed up, it greeted him with a bullet to the head and took his rifle anyway. All’s fair in love and war, and the apocalypse.

When I first started playing, someone offered to show me the ropes if I met them at a nearby lighthouse. I had five minutes under my belt, and nothing more than the standard starting gear, but it was enough. When I got there, he shot me from hiding and said ‘Thanks for the beans.’ It was a good lesson; trust no one.  Among the veterans of the game the coast is referred to as the ‘Bean Coast,’ because there’s always a new guy running around with a can full of beans.

I introduced the game to my brother – he went through the usual ups and downs of a starting player. Mauled by zombies, died of starvation, broke his legs on a ladder. When he finally made it to the big city, he found a scoped rifle hidden in an apartment block.  What did he do?

He climbed the highest building with a wide grin, and started shooting survivors. Not zombies, not even bandits – everyday survivors. The first guy had no idea what hit him; he was scurrying from building to building in an attempt to go unnoticed. He forgot to look up.  The second guy was prone on an opposite roof, but his pea-shooter was no match for a scoped rifle.

My brother thought it was hilarious; I legitimately felt sick.

Perhaps I was overreacting – After all, it’s just a game, right? He wouldn’t do this in real life, right? Well, no, he wouldn’t.

But it still shows, to me at least, some very interesting aspects of human behavior. There will always be sociopaths – those who kill and maim for fun out of a pathological disturbance, or some other psychological issue. Any post-apocalyptic survivors will have to deal with this, and deal with the fact these people will probably be on the top. But surely, couldn’t the rest of us work together to rebuild and band together for protection?  There has never been a real apocalypse for us, so the closest model we have is the world of virtual simulations; video games, and things are looking grim.

I thought it was fear at first. It probably is fear, for most of us. Permanent death makes dying in the game a serious issue; you can’t instantly respawn with everything back, and you’ve worked hard to stay alive for this long; you’ve worked hard to scavenge everything you’ve found. You don’t want to let some trigger happy moron ruin that, do you?


Shoot them first; shoot them before they can shoot you. Become the trigger happy moron.

Oh no, no. It’s okay when you do it – you are preemptively defending yourself. It’s only other people that are trigger happy morons.  If you need more proof, this is often the argument I hear defending American firearms laws, or calling for a relaxation of regulation in Australia. I can not help but ask, ‘What if neither of you had a gun?’

When I first started playing Day Z, I was friendly and idealistic and naïve – I was willing to work with anyone, I was willing to help anyone. After all, us survivors should be uniting against the common enemy, right? Uniting against the Zombies and the Bandits, right comrade? But I have been backstabbed too many times; It’s not the rooftop sniper that I fear, it’s not the bandit hunting me that I far – it’s the guy who act’s friendly until my back is turned.  It’s the guy who tells me he’s out of ammo, and shoots me when I give him some.  It’s the guy that works with me to survive for two hours, and shoots me in the back when I find something he wants’.

Everyone is a threat until proven otherwise.

It is impossible to prove otherwise.

I haven’t started shooting on sight yet, and if I am forced into a conformation I’ll still offer the benefit of the doubt – but I don’t respond to calls for help anymore.  I’ll avoid other players I see, hiding in the forest with my sights locked on their head until they have passed. I’ll see a potential comrade being chased by Zed’s and let him run past instead of opening fire to save him, just because he might shoot me back when I’m done.  I can feel myself becoming part of the problem, and every time I leave a fellow survivor to the horde, or ignore a potential compatriot’s call for help, I feel a little guilty. But I move on, because I’ve been shot in the back too many times.

And while I’m sitting safely hidden in the forest watching a survivor move along the road, I wonder – Is this how we treat each other in the apocalypse?