Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse: The DayZ Experiment

Amid the resurgent popularity of zombies in recent years – think The Walking Dead, I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead and so on – the 2011 publication of Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies showed we might be able to learn something useful from the lumbering horde.

In short, Drezner poses the question: how would we deal with a zombie outbreak?

He answers it not like the US Centre for Disease Control – who prepared an emergency response plan – or author and screenwriter Max Brooks – who wrote an oral history of survivor experiences – but by conducting a thought-experiment, asking how theories such as realism, liberalism and constructivism would view human responses to a zombie apocalypse.

Thanks to one ex-military New Zealander working for an eastern European game developer, we now have a sort of real-world experiment in which to test people’s behaviour in a post-apocalyptic environment.

That experiment is a videogame called DayZ and it suggests that even in a system that should theoretically promote rational, self-interested behaviour, people act in unexpected ways.

To be more precise, DayZ is a mod for a now-ageing military simulation game, ARMA II. Despite still being under construction, DayZ has been a phenomenal hit since its release earlier this year.

With nearly 1.2m players to date, DayZ has propelled a previously niche game to the top of the best-seller list on the digital distribution platform Steam on several occasions.

DayZ drops players into a 225km2 world populated only by zombies (well, technically, the “infected”, a la 28 Days Later – the distinction is important) and other players (survivors), with virtually no specific objectives or rewards.

The only real goal? Stay alive.

Your primary task is to scrounge for food and water and weapons to defend yourself, particularly against other survivors who – as quickly becomes clear to new players – are a much more serious threat than the zombies.

Death at the hands of others comes much more easily in DayZ than in many other games. One shot from another survivor can (and usually does) kill. If it doesn’t, you’ll start bleeding and unless you find a safe place to bandage up, you’ll bleed out fast. Fall more than a metre or two and you’ll break your legs, leaving you at the mercy of zombies or other survivors as you crawl to safety.

Not only does death come easily and often – it’s permadeath. Once you die, that’s it. You’ll lose everything you’ve scraped together, a process which often involves at least several days' worth of gameplay.

Starting again is no small matter – the early stages of a new spawn in the game are a fraught and drawn-out affair, involving slow, unarmed crawling around looking for a tin of beans and (if you’re lucky) a weapon to fend off any zombies that spot you wriggling around in the rubble and grass.

To make matters worse, trusting other survivors is a huge risk. As forum posts and guides for new players shout over and over, don’t trust anyone unless you already know them from outside the game.

Communicating with strangers can be risky enough as you need to get close enough for them to hear you speak – that is, close enough for them to attack you. Even seemingly friendly survivors can and will turn on you, and lots of survivors are there specifically to hunt other survivors (see video above).

Hop on a bus full of unarmed survivors, and you risk ending up forced at gunpoint to engage another unsuspecting victim in mortal combat. Accept a ride from a helicopter and you risk being dumped on an island to starve to death. The dangers in trusting others mean that even relatively stable groups can quickly turn on each other.

Put simply, life in DayZ is nasty, brutish, and very, very short – the current average survivor lifetime is one hour and five minutes.

In-game, the objectives are constrained, the rules are simple and when it comes to interacting with other survivors, the incentives are clear: killing another survivor offers great rewards with no in-game consequences. You can take their precious gear, saving you hours of crawling around through zombie-infested towns and rummaging around in piles of empty tin cans in hope of finding food.

Let someone else survive and they might kill you. When communication is difficult and talk is cheap, trust is hard to come by.

So what would the realist, liberalist, and constructivist theories suggest players are likely to do?


Realists see the world as being in a state of anarchy, with no overarching authority to govern behaviour. They conclude that stability is only achievable through the use and balance of raw coercive power, with the possible formation of alliances out of self-interest.

Upon logging into a DayZ server, a realist would be unsurprised to (usually) find chaos incarnate. They would see zones of conflict and stability maintained and ruled by the strongest player – whether due to skill, or through possession of the best weaponry and equipment – and groups of players allied together for safety.


A liberalist agrees with realists that the world is anarchic but believes that, through participation in institutions, successful cooperation can be achieved on the basis of self-interest.

In DayZ, a liberalist could point out that while there are no in-game institutions or even teams per se, at a meta level observable alliances tend to be formed between players who are members of existing online multiplayer clans, and/or friends linked by some other institution or groups.

The liberalist would argue that it is through these links that cooperation to avoid the consequences of anarchy is achieved.


Unlike a realist or liberalist, a constructivist rejects the rationalist assumption that the absence of an over-arching authority necessarily leads to a self-help or purely self-interested logic of interaction, and sees interests as being constructed and shaped through social interaction.

While they recognise that some agents may see others as nothing more than a potential threat and see the accrual of power as their primary interest, constructivists believe there will be others that relate to particular agents as friends or rivals rather than potential enemies, and act towards them accordingly.

A constructivist would be thrilled to see that in DayZ, there are players who refuse to see other survivors as an inherent threat, but rather as people who might be able to help them – or who might require help.

Such players include the now-renowned Dr Wasteland, who plays the game with the specific purpose of rendering medical assistance to those in trouble, spending hours of real-life time doing so.

Such players essentially disagree with the opinion that the only way to survive in DayZ is to treat all strangers as hostile and to shoot on sight.

One of my first games of DayZ involved a stranger pulling up in a bus and helping me gear up before we scoured nearby towns for spare engine parts and fuel. Though they had much to lose (it takes lots of time to repair a vehicle, particularly on your own) and I was armed, they didn’t see me as a threat. Rather, they saw a potential friend, and acted accordingly.

Despite the rules of the game being biased towards self-interested hostile competition, there are still players who, rather than behaving as relatively predictable, rational agents in an anarchic system, wade into the game with their own perceptions and priorities. Such players are fully aware that many other players are likely to be hostile and may even be playing it to win.

This dispels the idea that anarchy is an objective and defining feature of the system. In DayZ, anarchy is what gamers make of it.

So just how much does this experiment tell us about how people might actually behave in a zombie apocalypse? In many controlled experiments there are concerns about whether the subjects are really acting as they would in real life. DayZ is no different. There are endless forum posts with players arguing at length about whether in-game behaviour reveals someone’s true nature, or whether it’s all “just a game”.

Even in DayZ, where there are so few downsides to ruthless self-interested behaviour, some people refuse to descend into free-for-all slaughter. So I’d like to believe that in real life things would be at least a little bit better than the chaos of a DayZ server.

But I find it hard to silence my inner realist. So, as I’m gathering more data on this experiment, I’ll be stockpiling cans of beans in case of zombie outbreak, all the while hoping there are many more Dr Wastelands out there.

Mike Pottenger does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

By Mike Pottenger, University of Melbourne


    This weekend I will have a PC capable of Arma2 so I was planning on trying out DayZ. The only thing stopping me now is that I am concerned that hackers will ruin the fun on any server I jump into.

    I feel like by and large legitimate players will play it to survive and work together, because there's no endgame. Even if you have a lot of cool stuff, you can potentially lose everything really easily, and if you're bored with that you probably just won't log on.

    I think for the most part the people who will ruin the gamer are hackers - and not because they're inherently douchebags, but because they don't respect how challenging the game is, or is meant to be. They can give themselves sniper rifles and ghille suits and endless supplies, sure, and they can pick off newbies, but that kind of grefing has to get dull eventually. I just think where there's basically no consequences to playing against the spirit of the game, and they haven't worked to gain anything they stand to lose, they don't put any value on the risk.

    If someone gave you a million dollars for free but gave you a 50/50 chance of doubling it, you'd hesitate.

    But if you knew you could get a new million dollars to try with every hour, then it's not even a game anymore.

      I wouldn't be too worried about hackers... I've been playing for over a month, and while in the first few weeks they were an issue, I haven't seen a hacker in-game for quite some time now... (Some redditors have attributed that to BattlEye anti-hack updates, but I can't confirm that.)

      Word to the wise, steer clear of NZ servers wherever possible (they were hotspots for hackers for a good while there, may not be so much any more, but I still consider them risky), and don't assume that every death you can't attribute to a nearby survivor was necessarily due to a hacker (often you won't even hear the shot if you get killed by a sniper rifle from an extended distance, for example)...

      Hardly any ransoms work together in dayz it's normally shoot on site.

        We own an Australian DayZ server based in Seattle and most of our group (30+ players) are very active players. Hacking is PANDEMIC in DayZ. BattleEye do a great job trying to keep up with these hackers, but with CD Keys being traded on the dark market for $5 a pop, they don't care about getting banned.

        I have died ~10 time in the last 7 days. Once to a radically overpowered Zombie, once because I accidentally dived off a ledge which trying to prone and 8 times from hackers either teleporting everyone in the server 50m into the air or them killing everyone on the server with the push of a buttn.

        DayZ is the most amazing , challenging, immersive, family-time sucking game I have ever played, ubt hacking is totally ruining it for a lot of players.

        Possibly with the advent of the stand alone version of the game, which Dean Hall is currently work on, will we see a better situation, but it's BAD at the moment.

    I've been wanting to give this a go.. but yeh.. the price of buying another game I will never buy always stops me.. yet at the same time I would pay the same price for just DayZ.. just the way it is I guess. Even when it's on special ArmA II is always over $20.. they are obviously making a lot of money from the DayZ mod's existence and I don't want to support that.. I want to support DayZ.

      Well if you don't want to buy Arma2 for Day Z, you can wait - there might be an Arma3 mod for Day Z which is coming early next year OR there will be a standalone DayZ game.

        There WILL be a standalone DayZ, and it'll be released before Christmas as an early buy-in 'Alpha' along the lines of Minecraft... 100% confirmed, and there's even a website for updates:

          Yeah, I was more saying you can either play the inevitable Arma3 mod or wait for the standalone game, if you don't want to get Arma2 at this point. I might wait for the standalone beta myself, but I've been waiting to play DayZ for awhile now...

            He said he's not going to continue it with Arma3 I thought. He'll continue the Arma2 Mod, and the Standalone I thought.

              The standalone is based on a fork of the ARMA3 engine but uses the ARMA2 netcode, which he claims he much prefers.

      Hey Light 487 The modder works for them now so dont worry you buy Arma 2 you support DayZ

    I think you'd have to be really stupid to think that DayZ reflects how people would behave in real life.

    Really stupid.


      All of these extrapolations to real world scenarios don't make sense (I'm also thinking of the WoW Zul Gurub disease bug), considering that (1) life isn't valued as much as it is in real life, and (2) there's anonymity.

        not to mention the pain/hunger/stress would be real....and I imagine that owuld affect things

        Also agreed - and the fact that even despite anonymity, etc, and with the rewards to banditry so high, pretty substantial numbers of players don't shoot first is what's of interest to me.

      I think only because there's unrealistic factors that affect the outcome.

      If every person only had one life, and no one person had a godlike advantage like unlimited supplies or invulnerability, we'd see a lot more co-operation.

      Maybe there'd be the occasional murder, but they'd be brought down by the collective might of the others and serve as an example to others. In a society where trust is fragile and difficult to earn, and your life can be ended as easily as any other - with a persistent threat against all of you, such as zombies - people by and large will be more likely to collaborate.

      I think the above is a reasonable projection of what we'd see people at like in real life, at least those physically able to undertake the scenario.

        you used to see a lot more co-operation when they had the bandit skin in place. what ended up happening was that all the bandits were shoot on sight and everyone else was the usual "friendly" shout and go from there.

          Bandit skins are back in the game. The problem is that there is also a giltch where your backpack and its contents revert back to whatever you started that session with when your humanity level causes it to trigger a skin change. So if you log in as a new spawn, find a dead survivor with cool gear and a decent backpack then have to kill a fellow survivor in self defence or give a blood transfusion to a couple of people then your pack reverts back to NOTHING.

          DayZ is filled with many annoying bugs like this. The bag that swallows your gear when you don't have enough slots to take it instead of just saying no or dropping it on the floor. the way people can duplicate backpacks, clothing, food, drink, medical supplies.... The developers don't seem to care

      Agreed. Society exists because it naturally drifts towards that state. There have been plenty of catastrophes in the past, and yet oddly enough people drift back towards society again.

      It's why I *HATE* The Walking Dead. Such utter bollocks.

    I would hope that DayZ doesn't reflect human behaviour in real life; that in an actual "apocalyptic situation" people would still be constrained by the codes of ethics moral people instinctively live their lives by. Utilitarianism suggests that we must acknowledge other's rights to happiness and wellbeing, and that to operate as a moral agent we must logically accept that if we wish to have those rights upheld, we must also extend them to others. Unfortunately, this theory assumes that everyone has access to the same level of ability to access basic human rights - the right to food, shelter, etc - and in an apocalyptic scenario (and even in the world we live in) that just isn't the case. Ethical theories do a great job of identifying ideal moral platforms, however, they're just that - theories. In a survival situation the "level moral platform" is shifted to those who have, and those who have not - and recognizing that others have a feeling of hunger just as we do - and therefore we are morally obliged to give them exactly half our food - is a stretch. Who is to say the other person is as moral as we are? Why should we value their rights above our own? This is, as far as I'm concerned, the major barrier to an anarchic society functioning for the benefit of those who live within it. - just as the problem exists within our society. Mutually beneficial societies, where everyone works for the greater good of the population of the whole, just don't fall in line with Darwinism. Survival of the fittest - it's what's made the world what it is, and I see no reason under moral rationalism for things to be any different if it all "goes to shit". However, I really don't think that that will extend to mindlessly shooting other people on sight, and here's why:
    Despite the point I made above, I'd like to think people will still hold to moral codes and won't be immoral just for the hell of it - which is, from what I understand, what a large population of DayZ's players do. There's a payoff in DayZ - in that you'll potentially gain resources - but there's also the possibility that you'll get nothing. In DayZ there are only consequences for those who have died. For the killer, there's no such thing as real human emotions such as guilt or remorse. At least, not ones which have real-world consequences. Plato's story in 'The Republic', "The Myth of Gyges", examines this. Essentially, Gyges finds a ring which makes him invisible. The story asks the question of whether a person remains moral when there is no fear of consequences, of rebuttal, of accountability. Gyges acts immorally, secure in his anonymity whilst wearing his ring. There's a parallel here - when playing DayZ, the player is Gyges - invisible, anonymous, and acting as a separate agent. However, Gyges eventually has to take off the ring and return to his life knowing the horrible things he's done - the player turns off his computer, with his actions in the game staying in the game. He may have pissed off a few people, but it's just a game. He'll still be able to sleep at night.
    And so, my rambling post has brought me to this conclusion - I don't think people's behaviour within DayZ will necessarily reflect what will happen if law and order breaks down. There will be people who act immorally and in their own self-interest at the detriment of others - but we already have that. We do our best to put them in gaol. But we also have people who hand in wallets, who help old ladies across the street, and who see others in need and help and do so for the feeling of contentment which comes from doing the right thing.
    DayZ allows people to live an alternate life - wearing Gyges' ring - and, just as Plato addressed, they won't necessarily be bothered by consequence. Life in the real world is a series of moments where you'll have to consider the consequences; and, while some people flagrantly have no regard for consequences, they are far outweighed by those who do.

    Wait, I Am Legend had zombies in it? Damn, I must have seen the version where the monsters were closer to vampires.

      Good call - what was I thinking? Will see if I can sub in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead.

      Hi Scrumptatoes,

      Apologies for the error and thanks for letting us know. It's now been amended in the original article (over at The Conversation:


      Sci/Tech Deputy Editor, The Conversation

    Want to know what a society might act like look no further than Somalia in the 90s. It was a messed up place, still is.

    This article reads like someone found a political philosophy page on Wikipedia and couldn't wait to appear smart in front of their friends.

    This doesn't make games any more intellectual, not in the slightest.

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