Utilitarianism, Moral Reasoning, and Zombies

Eric Lis

One of the fun things about writing this column every week is that I every few months I have an excuse to check the scientific literature for new research involving zombies. One of the fun things about my day job is knowing that there are respected scientists out there doing research involving zombies.

One of the challenges of life as an adventurer is that you're constantly faced with difficult ethical decisions. Such decisions routinely place adventurers in the position of holding lives in their hands. We don't fully understand how such decisions impact the characters who have to make them, since most RPG players don't routinely face life-and-death dilemmas themselves. As scientists, we have an inkling into how such decisions affect the people who make them, but it's never been really well examined. It's hard to study someone in the moment that they face an ethical dilemma because you never know when one will happen. You can bring someone into a laboratory and give them a fictional dilemma, but the only really feasible way to do this in large groups of people is by asking them to read a story or watch a video or something and then make a decision, and this breaks the suspension of disbelief enough to emotionally distance people from what they're doing. For decades, researchers have tried to find novel ways to put people into ethical dilemmas in a time and place when they can be studied, and the last few years have seen a big breakthrough thanks to video games. Video games and virtual reality have been shown to have a stronger emotional effect on people than text-based cases (that's just in the laboratory, you understand... nobody's comparing the emotional impact of a video game to a novel or something). What people have begun to realise is that video games are increasingly a powerful and emotionally-resonant tool which can be used to put people in the situation of having to make an ethically-charged decision, and it turns out that zombie games may be among the best ones for this purpose.

Earlier this month, an article appeared which tried to look at the emotional impact of facing a dilemma, and did so using zombies. The researchers looked at people up playing the open-world survival horror game DayZ. DayZ is a game where players compete for scarce resources, facing off against other human characters even while constantly facing the threat of zombie attack, and as such the game naturally puts players in the position where doing what's best for themselves directly harms another player's character. Rather than bring subjects into a laboratory, which will modify your results right away, they looked on the game's online forums, where players routinely post stories of ethical dilemmas that they faced, and systematically evaluated posts where the author recognized that there had been an element of ethical reasoning and/or guilt to their decision-making. Their evaluation of the anecdotes seems to have been well-considered and thorough; they went so far as to differentiate in-character guilt, the guilt of a player for killing someone's character, from out of character guilt, the guilt of a player for making the game less fun or more frustrating for another player. The authors looked primarily at stories where players had caused either immediate harm to a character, such as killing them, or delayed harm, such as stealing their equipment and therefore effectively dooming them, and examined the emotional reactions as described in the anecdotes after the fact.

The authors found that about 80% of anecdotes explicitly stated that the players felt guilty about the actions they had taken. Immediate harm to another seemed to cause more guilt than delayed harm, but there were far fewer instances of delayed harm among the anecdotes so I'm not convinced this was a meaningful finding. Interesting, in about 10% of cases, players described going on to perform some sort of compensatory act, and the more guilty a player described feeling, the more likely they were to try to do something positive afterwards to make up for what they'd done. In about 80% of the anecdotes, the player gave a justification for their action, such as "I needed the supplies, so I took them." Players who felt guilty didn't seem to spend any more time justifying their actions than players who didn't. Discussions in the forum following anecdotes were also interesting, as they tended to offer some ethical rule by which to support the actions someone took ("it's okay to kill in self-defence) or condemn them ("it's never acceptable to betray someone"). What we see, therefore, isn't merely that players spend time agonizing over the ethics of what they did, but that others join in and help them puzzle through it.

What this work gives us is some insight into two very different things. First, it gives us some idea of what goes through a person's head after they've committed an act that they felt was necessary, but not right. This is a situation which our characters frequently find themselves in, both in video games and in table-top games, but which we don't always stop to think deeply about. Second, and perhaps more interesting, the study shows us something about players. The study doesn't give the players' ages, but given the typical MMORPG user base, DayZ players probably have an age distribution with two peaks: one in the 12-6 range, and one in the late 20's to early 30's. People who play MMORPGs are sometimes stereotyped as socially awkward and mentally unbalanced, as we've all seen in countless movies and TV shows. Furthermore, the popular media continues to warn us of the harmful effects of violent video games on kids -- a position which is not supported by the bulk of the literature. From data in this paper, we can see evidence that people playing DayZ are stopping to think seriously about the moral and ethical dimensions of their actions. Players may commit terrible acts in the name of their own survival, but they don't do it thoughtlessly. Rather, they spend time afterwards meditating upon what they've done, and not infrequently, they try to do some good deeds to balance out their guilt. This speaks volumes not just about our characters, but also about us players, and hopefully about human beings. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on July 20, 2014. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system