Sunday, September 30, 2012

Zombie Apocalypses, Lasertag and Ethics

But does she count as a person for the purposes of
applying Kant's Categorical Imperative?
How would people behave in the world of a zombie apocalypse, and what, if anything, does it tell us about ordinary morality?

One theory is that we would all fall upon each other, tearing ourselves to pieces in a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type frenzy. Life in the zombie aftermath would be – in the words the Seventeenth Century political theorist Thomas Hobbes used to describe the ‘State of Nature’ – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. And this is so not because of the dangers from zombies, but rather because of the dangers presented by other humans in a lawless world.

Is this really what would happen?

A recent post on The Conversation suggests – in a light-hearted fashion – that there is some evidence that it is. The author describes the player-to-player carnage of the videogame DayZ, where players struggle to survive in a post-Zombie-apocalyptic world. The costs and payoffs to players in the game are structured so that rational self-interested players benefit greatly from killing others and stealing their stuff. And that, for the most part, is exactly what the players do. Of course, some stalwart do-gooders can be found – healers of the wasteland – but they are all the more remarkable because of the cutthroat and solitary world they inhabit.

Better hope that Z-Plan is tight.

But it seems to me that all this shows is how warped the DayZ game-mechanics must be. A game that has people avoiding teaming up for survival is unrealistic. (Just to clarify that – a zombie apocalypse is of course altogether realistic. But a world where survival is not improved by being in at least small teams, preferably with cordial relations with other nearby teams, is utterly divorced from the irremovable realities of the human situation.) Some level of decency, trustworthiness and sociability is a core part of rational survival.

Now if we were to take the less fun path, this point could be argued through the theories of the great philosophers since Epicurus in the Greek Hellenistic period, and we could use the philosophies of Rousseau and Hume to refute the grim picture relayed by Hobbes. Similarly, we could make the point in terms of contemporary game theory, arguing that the dog-eat-dog ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ model of human interaction is a misrepresentation of ordinary reality, and that the more sociable ‘stag hunt’ game is a better picture of what is going on.

Instead though, I propose to take the fun path, and to compare the DayZ situation that which arises in zombie lasertag.

Stuck for a gift idea for the person who has it all?
Go with zombie apocalypse erotic romance!
But before we turn to violence; sex.

After all, the normal social motivations that pull people together will be just as relevant post-apocalypse. Indeed, this very day marks the book release of what I suspect is the first ever novel-length erotic romance set in a zombified world: Flesh by Kylie Scott.(No, the zombies themselves aren’t getting it on, so get that mental image out of your heads. Ew. No. It’s about a ménage forming amongst three survivors as they band together against the infected hordes.) And the idea here is a pretty plausible one. People are still going to have the same desires for companionship, love and lust in the new world. Probably more. Heck, you may as well live like there’s no tomorrow when there’s every chance there really is no tomorrow. Indeed, a considerable number of writers have written on this premise; it turns out there is in fact a website for the Romance Writers of the Apocalypse.

And there is a deeper point at issue here. There are basic survival gains in simply having a good time. This is the major problem I have with the TV series The Walking Dead. There’s a point at which grimness becomes pathological. Every character in that show seems just a nudge away from committing suicide. Lighten up people! In order to survive, you need to want to survive. You need something to get you through the day – and that might well be whatever gets you through the night. Ultimately, one of the best survival rules offered in Zombieland is not Rule #1 ‘cardio’, or Rule #2 ‘Double-Tap’, but rather Rule #32: ‘Enjoy the little things’. 

Or, in the case of Flesh, the not-so-little things. And all at the same time. Stag-hunt games indeed.

But to return from sex and zombie erotica to violence and zombie lasertag, last week I was fortunate enough to play in a test-run of the new Laserforce Zombie game.

For those who don’t know much about lasertag, the basic principle is pretty simple. You wear a vest-pack with flashing lights and sensors on it, and it attaches to a gun that shoots a laser. When your shot hits the sensors on the vest-pack of an enemy player, their suit registers that it has been hit, and it ‘goes down’ for a period of time – meaning that their lights go out and their gun won’t work. They can still be shot again, so usually they will have to run away and hide somewhere until their suit reactivates and they can start shooting people again. A central computer keeps track of everyone’s score – basically the amount of times they have shot the enemy and been shot by the enemy.
Social Science Experiments: Lasertag vs. DayZ

That’s the simple story. But most games of lasertag – such as the one I play at Laserforce league – are more complicated. A lot more complicated. In ‘Space Marines 5’ (the game that the international competition is held in) you have limited lives and shots and need to get resupplied by team-members – your ‘Ammo’ and ‘Medic’ – in order to stay in the game and keep fighting. Plus there are nukes, rapid-fire, missiles, ‘generator targets’, power-boosts and more. The goal in that game isn’t merely to outscore your opponents, but to eliminate their team altogether. Kill their medic out of the game, and then remove the other players one by one.

On the last League night, league players were used as the test subjects for Laserforce’s new Zombie game. The game is pretty much how you’d imagine it. Everyone but one player starts as a human ‘survivor’, with flashing red lights on their vest. One player starts as a zombie. The zombie (with flashing green lights) wants to infect the survivors, which it can do by shooting them with a ‘missile’. Using a missile is just like shooting them normally, but it takes a little longer. You have to ‘lock on’ to them with your gun pointed at their vest-sensors, which takes a little over a second. The zombie is also hard to kill. He has to be shot multiple times before he goes down, and it doesn’t take him long to get back up again. Once a survivor is infected, they have 30 seconds to get the ‘cure’, which pops up periodically at one of the in-game targets. If you can’t get the cure in time (and you can only ever use one cure per game), then the infection takes hold. Your lights turn green and you turn on your buddies, trying to infect them.

The game is an ‘individual’ game. That is, the score and player rankings are not built around team victory, but solely on individual performance. Your aim is to win personally, not to play a part in getting your team to victory.

So how did the survivors act in this situation, in order to maximise their own individual score?

Exactly how you would imagine. They teamed up.

Of course they teamed up. It took barely seconds for players to realise that there was safety in numbers. To be found on your own was to be infected. You needed players around you to communicate where the zombies are, to check in every direction the zombies might attack your position, and to create enough firepower to shoot the zombie down before he could infect anyone in your group. As well, the less zombies that were out there on the playfield, the more manageable the task was. Keeping track of and defending against one or two zombies was straightforward. But once you have five or six zombies, coming at you en masse and from different directions, the end is nigh.

In fact, so successful was the teaming up and communication amongst the dozen or so survivors that in the first test game the starting zombie wasn’t even able to infect anyone. Spreading out across the upstairs levels, players gravitated towards vantage points that allowed each group to patrol and defend one of the four routes the zombie could take to get upstairs. Equally, being upstairs allowed each group to keep track of an area of the lower playfield; with good communication every player on the field knew exactly where the zombie was at pretty much every moment of the game.

This might have happened in the second game as well, if some morons hadn’t ruined the important social science experiment by deliberately allowing themselves to be infected just so they could stagger about the playfield, infecting survivors and mumbling, ‘Brains, brains’. (I totally deny any involvement in such silliness.)

There was even enlightened self-sacrifice when it came to the cure. After some frenetic in-game arguments, some players were willing to forego getting the cure themselves, in order to let infected players use it. Better to not have the resource yourself than to have an ally turn into an enemy, and to let the zombies get a foothold in the survivor population.

The point is that a basic level of teamwork is a fundamental part of any real-world scenario. Human beings are in many respects, if not a pack animal, then at least a social animal. Throughout history they survive, or perish, in groups. They cannot see every direction at once. They need time to sleep, recuperate and reload. Their capacity to fight off threats increases in their greater numbers. And their natural specializations can lead to a useful division of labour in groups.  In a word, society pays off.

Thus I conclude that the zombie lasertag social science experiment supports the view that some level of moral behaviour – trust, teamwork and so on – arises amongst self-interested rational actors.

What is the result here for moral theory? Well, some might say that morality is entirely divorced from self-interested rational behaviour. Prudence has nothing to do with genuine respect for others. Others might say morality just is enlightened self-interested rational behaviour. The truth, though, is perhaps somewhere in between, and that the sociable teamwork required by the human condition – both in ordinary life and during zombie apocalypses – sets us on a path to morality proper.

A final observation. One interesting facet of the zombie evening was the question of rules. All the players on the night were Laserforce league players – and the League requires players abide by various rules, such as not chasing fleeing opponents with their lights out and not ‘blind-shooting’ opponents (sticking your gun around corners without looking and shooting). These rules are standardly applied in non-league games as well; while there are no referees in these games, others will chastise you (that is, they will abuse the heck out of you) if you clearly breach these rules. But no-one expected the zombie to follow the rules. Of course zombies chase their prey. The rules cannot apply to them. The ease with which everyone instinctually accepted this departure from the rules that accompany every other game was fascinating.

But then the further question arose as to whether the survivors should be rule-bound to the zombies. How could it be wrong to cheat against the undead, by blindshooting them for instance? They weren’t human; they weren’t really persons anymore.

Rational self-interest may lead us on the path to morality proper. But even morality proper has its limits – and they seem to stop about the time you dig yourself out of that shallow grave and start feasting on people’s brains.

There will be morality amongst humans in the post-apocalyptic world – but it probably won’t extend to the post-human. Sorry.


William Ferguson said...

Bravo, bonus points for including LF, zombies and sex all in the one entry.

On general grounds I agree that there is more value in co-operation. But I think there is a natural tipping point that is determined by the value of communal goods that could be privatised. Ie its the tragedy of the commons allover again.

If there is a scarce resource that cannot be shared then it will create a source of tension. If the value of the resource is greater than the value provided by co-operation then co-operation will cease.

A proof of this would be to change the LF zombie game (I want to play - perhaps next Monday) so that the cure was moire valuable to individual as less commonly offered. Perhaps by giving you several doses of protection.

Kylie Scott said...

You are fantastically hot. I just wanted you to know that.

An anonymous fan.

Leah B said...

This post was just fun to read!

Kudos for reference to the 'double tap' - very important.

Another thing I was thinking about (and it all based on a terrible movie with Sean Bean... who I love... )"The Lost Future" .. Have I mentioned it is a terrible movie?

Anyway, there's a cure from the zombie virus (you can get infected by proximity - you don't have to be bitten - that just makes the whole process quicker) - and there's an evil dude squirreling away all of the 'yellow powder' for his family now and in the future. Does that change the community dynamic?

If there's 2 families vying for the one cure ... would they combine forces?? I wouldn't think so...

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Bill and Leah,

Yep, I think you’re both right that you would get competition in those cases (I haven’t seen that movie, Leah, though maybe that’s a good thing if it’s that terrible!). The self-interested payoffs of teamwork (or, at least, a cordial agreement not to harm each other) beyond the small, local group depend a lot on the situation. So scarce resources – especially cures – could definitely have people fighting each other. The aspect of DayZ that seemed to me so unrealistic was that it rewarded solitary behaviour. I think the self-interested gains of being in at least a small group are enormous. Though I suppose there are exceptional cases where even these payoffs disappear – such as once one of the team is infected!

William Ferguson said...

OK, now maybe this is a stretch, but perhaps co-operation is really natural phenomenon that allows intense specialisation that going it alone cannot.

And here we have evidence for that at the molecular level.

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