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Zombie-Infested Virtual World Reveals Our Ethical Blind Spots

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.
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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.