Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Zombie-Infested Virtual World Reveals Our Ethical Blind Spots

• July 17, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Players of an online survival game expressed guilt for killing, but less so for non-lethal actions that would result in a character’s death.

So, the world has been overrun by zombies, and to have any chance of survival, you have to kill people every now and then. Are you comfortable with that?

A new analysis of comments posted on the forum of a popular online game suggests the answer is: Not really.

When immersed in a post-apocalyptic scenario, “users regularly rob, harm, and kill,” report Quebec-based researchers Cecile Cristofari and Matthieu Guitton. However, that doesn’t mean players fully succumb to their animalistic, eat-or-be-eaten instincts.

To the contrary, “Ethical concerns nonetheless remain surprisingly important (to them),” the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One. “Much of the immediate harm done by users is prompted by panic, and immediately regretted.”

“Even in the most drastic conditions, survivors appeared reluctant to kill another human for purely utilitarian reasons.”

Guitton and Cristofari focused on DayZ, a “free, open world survival game” with more than 500,000 registered users. Players are the survivors of an apocalypse who “have to wrestle their surroundings to find food, weapons, or medical supplies, while their lives are under the permanent threat of zombies or other hostile survivors.”

In this virtual world (and unlike many others), death is a big deal, in which character must “start again from scratch.” To avoid this fate, users “can choose to either attack other characters, or team up with them in order to increase their own chances of survival.”

This means players must regularly make moral decisions, including whether to kill competing characters, or rob them of their supplies (which means they will, in all likelihood, die). An online forum has been established in which users “ask for or receive comments on whether their actions were justified or ethical.”

The researchers examined a series of threads posted in 2013, in which “authors acknowledged the possibility of guilt” after recounting a specific anecdote. The level of virtual harm they inflicted was noted, along with the level of guilt they expressed. In addition, 50 threads that focused on specific moral topics were examined to note commonly accepted norms of behavior.

The researchers found that “what was perceived as acceptable behavior appeared to be largely similar to real-world norms. However, we observed a clear dichotomy between actual actions (what the users did when facing the online situation) and their moral judgments (how they reflected on their own actions afterwards).”

Specifically, even in this survival-oriented virtual world, players reported feeling guilt after killing another character, and they often modified their subsequent behavior in response to these feelings. “The intensity of guilt varied with the perceived gravity of the action,” the researchers write, “and immediate consequences were associated with greater gravity in the minds of the users.”

“Even in the most drastic conditions, survivors appeared reluctant to kill another human for purely utilitarian reasons,” the researchers add. “In contrast, not directly witnessing the death of another human—even if virtual—seemed to abolish this natural inhibition, at least partially.”

So, if people’s online behavior is indicative—and the researchers believe it is—these results paint a mixed portrait of our core ethical principles. While it’s unclear whether its roots are cultural or biological, the command “Thou shalt not kill” seems to be hard-wired into our brains.

On the other hand, the results suggest we are much more comfortable with delayed destruction. Among these players, at least, guilt decreased dramatically if the deadly consequences of their actions only take shape once they had left the scene.

That indeed sounds like the real world.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.

September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.

September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference

September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.

September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.

September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.

September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.

September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.

September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.

September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.

September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments

September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.

September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.

September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?

September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.

September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.

September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.

September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.

September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.

September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType

September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.

Follow us

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.