A player fleeing from zombies in Day Z. (Image: Screenshot)
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A rape in Day Z: what drives gamers to go Lord of the Flies on each other?

In a game where players can act out any kind of sadistic fantasy on each other - from taking hostage to force-feeding poison to breaking kneecaps - what incentive is there for humans to express their humanity?

Day Z isn't the most difficult game to explain to people at a functional level. It is a multiplayer survival game taking place over a large area of towns and forest populated by other players and zombies. Your character needs to stay healthy, warm and well fed in order to not die, and there are provisions, items and weapons littered around which can make survival easier. However once you get past that, to the 'why' of the game, things get confusing. There is no way to win; there is no guarantee of progress, no score system, no currency. In some ways this makes it one of the most challenging and creative games ever made. Not creative in the sense of the game design, but creative in the sense of how you play it - without imagination, without ideas and goals that you create for yourself the game has nothing. The game won’t tell you what you are supposed to want and you don’t even necessarily have to want to survive.

While the game grants you a huge degree of freedom it also lacks authority and with that long term consequences for actions. There is no automated police system and near-safe zones like you’ll find in EVE: Online; there is no system that simply blocks you from doing the same bad things to players as you would do to computer controlled enemies. You have a state of nature within the limitations prescribed by the game. (There are rules beyond the game, covering things like cheating, or certain gameplay options which depend on the server you’re playing on, but they're reliant upon being caught and the game admins opting to inflict a ban. Past that you’re on your own.)

The problem with freedom in the context of Day Z is that it is inevitable that players will turn on each other. There are simply not enough compelling reasons not to. In fact a lot of the mechanics of the game are actually geared towards helping people to turn on each other in creative ways. This is where things can get unpleasant. You can handcuff people. You can break people’s legs with axes. You can force them to eat tainted food or drink bleach. These are mechanics coded into the game with the presumed intention of making the game more fun for players.

Let’s think about that what that means for a moment. The game designers believed that their game would be improved by the ability to kill other player characters by forcing them to drink bleach.

The game also features voice communications: you speak into your microphone, your character speaks in the game, and people who are nearby can hear you. Hardly a revolutionary idea for anybody used to the idea of meeting and talking to people in the real world, but it’s not something that has really been used very much in video games until recently. This too can provide potential for inflicting misery upon other players. One extreme example caught my attention recently on this blog - a player having to endure two other players verbally pretending to rape her character.

What we are seeing to an extent with Day Z is a game that has embraced the capacity for great acts of cruelty, almost as a unique selling point. Plenty of other games let you kill other players, but few let you mess with them like this. Most games avoid giving players the ability to humiliate or abuse their opponents at length, but Day Z doesn’t even let you manually respawn yourself should you get bored of being toyed with.

How did it come to this? Well, from the point of view of the game mechanics, the game has changed a lot since it first appeared as a mod of Arma 2, and the most significant in terms of how players treat each other is the removal of a starting weapon. In the original game every player started with a Makarov pistol. It was borderline ineffective, short-ranged, inaccurate and not particularly powerful - but it was still a weapon. It was still enough that if somebody was to come after you they would have to be careful. Often the threat of the Makarov was enough to deter even well-armed players from hunting you. You might only be lethal at about twenty yards, but that would be enough. As everybody knew everybody else was armed, there was a degree of respect.

Now new players are known as "Bambis". Spawned unarmed on the beach they are the defenceless prey of the first armed person who stumbles upon them, or who seeks them out. You can’t outrun a bullet and you can’t usually hide too well in the gear you start out with either. You are prey, and the game makes no secret of this.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the game there is the psychological effect of including abilities like, for example, force-feeding poison to prisoners. This creates a certain mindset in a game. When a developer implements a feature, particularly in an alpha or beta, the intention is clearly that this is what they want you to be doing. You don’t create paths in a game if you do not want players to walk them. To a player who enjoys the unpleasantness, and who enjoys screwing with other players, this kind of addition to the game is a validation.

In fairness the developers are also adding friendlier things (camp fires for example are on the way), so the development isn’t a totally unfettered march towards barbarity - and at least there's no cannibalism. The risk, of course, is that if you add features like poisoning or maiming into the game, then where is the moral case for not including other acts of brutality? How far of an ethical leap is it from breaking a stranger’s legs and leaving him to be eaten by zombies to eating him yourself? If anything it is something of a surprise that cannibalism wasn’t brought into the game first. You would think horrifying acts in the name of survival would rate higher priority that horrifying acts for fun.

Day Z encourages cooperation, which is one good thing about the game, but the way in which is does this is also quite brutal on new players. Because you don’t necessarily get to spawn with your friends, or even anywhere near them or with any idea where they might be, a freshly spawned player character is not able to make use of any benefits of cooperation at first. Cooperation is reserved for those who have been alive long enough to find their friends, which will often mean finding weapons and equipment too. This makes one more element that plays against the new player, or the newly spawned one. To an extent this encourages social interaction, but any social interaction when you are unarmed is dangerous. Ironically, social interaction when you are armed is dangerous too, as many players won’t think twice about shooting somebody if they see they have a gun.

None of this means that Day Z is a bad game or that bad people play it, but we are seeing a battle for its soul. What the Day Z developers perhaps need to do is to think about what they want it to be remembered for, what they want it to bring to the history of gaming. Will Day Z be the first game that really nails unforgiving wilderness survival in a multiplayer open world, or will it be a game where creepy jerks congregated to enjoy third-rate sadistic jollies? Refusing to pander to those who want to add more cheesy nastiness to the game does not make it a casual or easier game, nor does it make it less of a challenge. The stakes of the game are high enough without adding long, drawn out humiliation to the price to be paid for getting caught by the enemy.

For all the technical issues and content that needs to be added to Day Z, perhaps the greatest challenge the developers face is getting the tone right. If they do manage this, then Day Z could be a truly revolutionary game; a hard-as-nails, dynamic and complicated adventure that breaks into the mainstream. If they get it wrong it’s just another great idea that never fulfilled its potential.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

SIPA PRESS/REX
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge