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

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit