The zombie is the 21st century monster of choice. It is the ubiquitous symbol of any kind of systemic failure: from zombie banks in economics to zombie categories in social theory.1 Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) use the science-fictional horror scenario of a zombie apocalypse, rather than a natural disaster (such as Hurricane Katrina), to instruct US citizens on issues of „Preparedness 101“ should the unthinkable occur and society break down.

The CDC’s assurances of preparation and control stand in stark contrast to contemporary cultural depictions of zombies, which expressly reveal „that societal structures and institutions, and the military, are ultimately ineffective in stopping the random disorder that occurs during a zombie outbreak or, very generally, in a global crisis“ (Birch-Bayley 142). The zombie apocalypse is thus, as a science fictional topos, both a poignant commentary on the anxieties of its present as well as an extrapolation of the consequences for the future. Zombie apocalypses comment on current issues of systemic control in times of crises and on anxieties about future socio-political realities. In short, they are cultural representations about how society imagines itself reacting to its own breakdown. Zombie apocalypses in literature and film are representations of an idealized version of this scenario. They are blueprints of how society is supposed to react (by setting an example and promoting either imitation or rejection of a specific behavior) and cannot offer the reader/viewer their individual exploration of this crisis situation. Video games on the other hand, because they are created as simulations of systems rather than fixed narratives, offer a procedural extrapolation of a crisis as it plays out. The digital medium provides the player with the option to explore their own behavior, make decisions, and react to the systemic breakdown. 

            In the following, I will concentrate on one specific adaptation of the trope of the zombie apocalypse, that of the video game DayZ, and analyze its medial specificity as digital SF. Especially important is that the game makes use of transgressive notions of storytelling to refute the science-fictional commitment to providing a historically-derived narrative account. Instead, DayZ favors of a new form of open-world simulation emphasizing not knowledge but lived experience. 

            DayZ was developed as a fan modification (mod) for the military action-game ARMA II (2009).2 Instead of the realistically simulated military world of the first-person-shooter (FPS), DayZ places the player into an ongoing zombie apocalypse. In addition, the game shifts the emphasis of gameplay from a mission-oriented, narrative-driven shooter towards a non-scripted open-world survival game with very specific alterations to the mechanics that facilitate a new form of narrative construction. As Pawel Frelik notes, video game genres can be constructed in terms of theme, affect or the „cognitive and haptic interactions required from the player“ (228), making a clear-cut categorization of DayZ problematic as it exhibits the SF-theme of a post-apocalypse, the affect of horror towards its subject matter of zombies, as well as game mechanics of first-person-shooters, open-world games, survival games, and massive multiplayer-online games (MMO). DayZ hybridizes theses categories and can comfortably be argued to belong in all of them. Central to my argument here is its ancestry in the zombie apocalypse narrative, which in itself combines the affective side of visceral, bodily horror present in the figure of the zombie and the science fictional theme present in the socio-political dimension of a dystopian end of the human. Before analyzing the game itself, I thus want to shortly explore the characteristics of the zombie apocalypse. 

1. The Zombie Apocalypse, Video Games, and Science Fiction 

Because of their focus on the socio-political dimension of systems failing, zombie apocalypses are ideal cultural representations of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity. For Bauman, contemporary society is defined by the evanescence of any and all forms of stabilizing social institutions, resulting in a triad of problems: „the combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability) and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possessions, neighbourhood, community)“ (161). All risk has been shifted from a societal to a private level – without institutions to frame and shape our lives, issues of security, safety, and certainty become the obligation of individual choice and form the most prominent anxieties and fears in our society. Zombies, as figures of systemic breakdown, literalize this dissolution of stability in that they emerge „to release chaos from within the logic of society itself“ (McAlister 475). Anyone can become a zombie. There is no safety protocol to escape this fate. The viral and infectious nature of the zombie threatens established systems of control – the zombie defies ontological categories and is best described with Agamben’s term of homo sacer: the abandoned human that lives outside the law and who can be killed without fear of consequence. 

            Recent SF scholarship, focusing on cinematic form, has read the zombie apocalypse mostly as a representation of contemporary biopolitics, or as Sherryl Vint has argued, of „the thanato-politics of a biopolitical order that deems lives not worth living, and thus inhabited by a kind of living death“ („Introduction“ 167). The distinction between human socially bound life, in the form of bios, and bare life, in the form of zoe, is explicitly negotiated by the zombie metaphor to showcase „the fragile quality of this distinction, how easily one can switch categories when the state of exception operates permanently“ („Introduction“ 168).  This reading of recent zombie films, such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Zak Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead(2004), as representation of thanato-politics follows a distinct tradition of conceptualizing science fiction as „social critique“ that encourages readers to see the world from an alienated point of view and the science fiction text as „a reflection on reality as well as of it“ (Vint, Science Fiction 39). This concept of SF is clearly aligned with the tradition of utopia/dystopia as a narrative of human progress and the will to know (to make sense of) our world that ideologically shapes our reality.   

            Consequently, the zombie is „a sign and a symptom of an apocalyptic undoing of the social order“ in the dystopian sense, whereas the survivors represent the utopian hope for an enclave of „relative, contingent and uneasy safety“ (McAlister 474f.). This ideological paradigm is entrenched in the narratives that inevitably follow a group of survivors, negotiating the ‚estranged‘ terrain of their formerly known world, in their quest to regain knowledge of this world and to look for a safe zone in which to re-build social order. The mentioned films further establish what Neeraja Sundaram calls the „discourse of the ‚human‘ or ‚ideal survivor'“, which represents only certain bodies as part of a human ideal: „coded in these films as heroic, individualistic, healthy and genteel“ (150). The films‘ protagonists, those characters the audience finds itself in „an act of imaginative identification“ with most, imagining not necessarily „being that other person, but rather imagining being in her situation“ (Gaut, cit. in Eder 600), in most zombie films thus exhibit admirable character traits such as honesty, empathy, strength, endurance, a conviction in scientific knowledge as a solution, a strong utopian faith in a better world, and an urge to help the needy and defend the weak.  

            But there is more than one way that SF transports meaning, especially when considering different media forms – and in fact, the revitalization of the zombie apocalypse trope after its near-demise in the cinematic form in the 1990s was largely due to its shift from film to video game and the massive popularity and cultural impact of one game in particular – resulting in what Jamie Russell calls the  „Resident Evil Effect“ (171). Even though zombies appeared in earlier games, the inauguration of the „zombie simulation“ (Weise, „Rules of Horror“ 238) – meaning games that translate the experience of the zombie film into the medium of games – first came about in the genre of survival horror3 and its keystone text, Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996). According to Matthew Weise, Resident Evil needs to be credited with providing the prototype of a „procedural adaptation“ („Rules of Horror“ 238) of the zombie apocalypse to videogames and establishing gameplay rules extrapolated from zombie behavior as presented by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Consequently, Resident Evilrevolved around human protagonists struggling to escape hordes of slow, shambling, but relentlessly aggressive zombies. The game provided new challenges in gameplay by transgressing generic boundaries of typical action games: Resident Evil focused on the avoidance of direct combat and instead rewarded strategic planning (like conservation of ammunition) in combination with strictly regulated movement and little control over the environment (limited gamespace, fixed perspective). For Weise, this type of gameplay is strongly connected to a feeling of vulnerability and rejects the typical „power fantasies many games offered, which seem to be about giving players the thrill of killing weaker, less-skilled opponents“ („How the Zombie“ 157). Early zombie simulations based their gameplay in the affective experience of horror and instead of empowering players, concentrated on the opposite feeling, by challenging players to face their fears, experience a loss of control, and deal with their own mortality. Ideologically speaking, this is in line with the counter-cultural critique that zombie films presented, be it a critique of the inhumane Vietnam war, the inherent racism of society or the loss of individuality in consumerism.   

            But with the new millennium and its liquid modern realities came an evolution of the cultural representation imagined via zombie apocalypses that broadened their scope to encompass science-fictional visions of globalized anxieties. The slow-shuffling hordes of zombies became the fast-paced hives of infected in films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Zak Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004): zombies that „are pure contagion, spreading like a virus“, manifesting our fears of „global pandemic“ and terrorism (Keetley 4). A similar shift occurred in video gaming, Weise claims, with zombie simulations now tending towards action and shooting, fast-paced gameplay, and narratives that project a „general drift away from the anxiety of disempowerment towards the thrill of empowerment““ („How the Zombie“ 165) – ideologically speaking, these games allow players to take charge in times of systemic failure and realize individual solutions. Zombie simulations such as Resident Evil 5 (2009) or Left 4 Dead (2008) are in effect first-person-shooters, which focus on player agency and military (forceful) reestablishing of order after a (temporary) systemic breakdown. It is within this more action-oriented paradigm, that DayZ positions itself as both a continuation and a transgression of the generic tradition. 

2. Exploration and Narrative

As a procedural adaptation of the zombie apocalypse trope, DayZ is part of one specific SF „parabola,“ which as Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger suggest are „combinations of meaningful setting, character, and action that lend themselves to endless redefinition and jazzlike improvisation“ (vii). Zombie apocalypses are part of the „Post-Holocaust Road Movie“ (x) parabola, which – as the name suggests – deals with a breakdown of society, the loss of knowledge and history, and a desperate need for spatial movement. As Sundaram argues, contemporary zombie fictions focus on journeys (the ‚road movie‘), both mental and spatial, as characters come to realize the destruction of any former structures (‚post-holocaust‘): The „protagonists of these films are thus necessarily always on the move – escaping the infected and invading viruses who swarm all places of prior refuge“ (140). Their journeys are thus trifold and reflect Bauman’s liquid modern risks towards the individual: material unsafety, spiritual uncertainty, and cognitive insecurity. In order to survive, they need to find shelter, food, and safety, and zombie narratives mark their progress „from a condition of despair to one of hope“ (ibid.). On the material level, their movement is spatial and oriented towards finding safety. On the spiritual, they realize their status as survivors and need to find a utopian hope for a better world, in order to regain certainty. And on the cognitive level they are seeking knowledge of their surroundings and status within it, trying to find security by regaining control of the situation. In most narratives, this is facilitated by uncovering the history of events that led to the situation and by promising scientific knowledge as a means of control.

            DayZ is similarly focused on a journey as ‚movement through space,‘ but the cognitive and spiritual journeys become transformed in this new digital form. As Lev Manovich has pointed out, traversing a three-dimensional gamespace is the essential component of gameplay for most games: „[They] present the user with a space to be traversed, to be mapped out by moving through it. [They] begin by dropping the player somewhere in this space. Before reaching the end of the game narrative, the player must visit most of it, uncovering its geometry and topology, learning its logic and secrets“ (245). DayZ, more than other games, highlights the interconnection of what Manovich calls „narrative action and exploration“ (247), narrative action referring to necessary actions by the player to propel the narrative along, whereas exploration refers to self-sufficient movement in the game world without narrative purpose. In DayZ both actions become indistinguishable, as the game lacks any form of scripted narrative event that would usually prompt the movement across the game world, motivated for example by the gathering of knowledge or the hope of a better position.

            Day Z takes place in Chernarus (a fictitious former Soviet-bloc country) after the outbreak of a deadly virus that has killed most of the population and transformed them into zombies. The player begins the game in medias res at the shore of Chernarus, with only a flashlight and batteries in their possession.4 They have to scavenge for food, water, medicine, and shelter, as well as deal with both zombies and human bandits in order to survive. As might be noted, this is a rudimentary narrative that structures the game – but it is one that already needed to be constructed by the player, as the game itself does not provide an introduction, an explanation, a tutorial or any other narrative guideline. Almost exclusively, the information on setting, history, and main objectives is part of the paratext that players will get before installing the game, most likely by visiting the game’s website. The main goal of the game is stated only there, never explicitly in the game: „[P]layers follow a single goal: to survive in the harsh post-apocalyptic landscape as long as they can“ („About“). Nothing is explained in-game, so that spatial exploration becomes the main driver of narrative action. Players roam the barren landscape, search houses for usable materials and equipment. Zombies and other humans are either avoided altogether, outrun, or fought off if weapons are available to the player. Since the game is predicated on multiplayer gaming, most conflicts ensue with other players, who are faced with the same survival challenges and thus tend to be hostile.  

            The austerity of story elements and the minimalist narrative cues given within the game itself are in stark contrast with SF’s traditional concern with narrative extrapolation, in the sense of providing stories that are concerned with the „extension from the known to the unknown“ (Landon 25). This notion of seeking knowledge has already been inherent in Brian Aldiss‘ definition of science fiction as „the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science)“ (8).  SF has thus traditionally been concerned with the performance of knowledge, both in the sense of „extensions, developments, and applications of well-established knowledge“ and the speculation on or „assumption of new – i.e., now unknown – principles“ (Schmidt, cit. in Landon 26) of knowledge. Accordingly, much of SF has emphasized the will to know about and reflect on the human condition. Especially interesting is that many SF video games (such as the Mass Effect- [Bioware 2007-12] or Fallout-series [Bethesda 1997-2010]) favor the construction of narratives of cognition (i.e. plot structures that rely on an active seeking out of knowledge about the world) in extensive imaginary worlds. Knowledge about the world or the human condition in DayZ, by contrast, remains inaccessible through narrative but must instead be experienced. There are no archives, records or info files that can be studied; no recollections of witnesses or testimonies of those responsible for the socio-political realities of the game world to be found. Thus, the player can never (re)gain security of knowing their place, leaving them forever insecure in Bauman’s sense of the word. In addition, utopian hope to alleviate liquid modern uncertainty can also only be temporarily gained by joining forces with other players and by acting as ‚ideal survivor‘, an action full of risk and little reward, as discussed below.   

            Instead, the science-fictional open-world setting of the post-holocaust emphasizes the player’s need for spatial movement in order to foster understanding of the estranged world into which they are literally dropped – understanding not in the sense knowledge of but experience in the world. As is typical of SF, players need to decipher the world as a text, by traversing the world, encountering its inhabitants (zombies, animals, other humans) and interacting with them. But it is a will to survive that drives the traversal, not a will to know. Exploration then only reveals – in Manovich’s terms – the topography (literally, the map) as well as the mechanical logic of the world. Through trial and error (and the inevitable death that follows from it), the game implicitly allows players to discover how to use objects, how to avoid death, where best to locate specific resources. Nonetheless, only the pure mechanics are ‚knowable,‘ not the game’s ’secrets‘ such as the history of the zombie plague, the events that caused the ruin of the surroundings or any potential attempts at coming to terms with the new realities. In contrast to other SF media employing the zombie apocalypse trope, no archives can be found that explain how things came to be, and no utopian hope is held out that things might change. This kind of narrative of a historical past and its connection to a possible future remains hidden from the player. Instead, the game focuses the player’s attention on the experience of living in the world’s present. 

            This aspect is especially important, as the game’s present is precarious and continuously threatened, highlighting the player’s position as homo sacer within the thanato-political order of the world, where his life is always inhabited by death. Further, the game flaunts its lack of explicit rules as symbolic of the uncertainty of institutionalized order, for example forgoing any player address and providing almost no Head-Up-Display (HUD) except for small status updates5. Any game mechanics, such as keeping nourished, avoiding poisoning through rotten food, bandaging injuries, countering blood-loss, or tinkering with objects have to be determined by the player through exploration. The player is forced to pay attention to the present moment and their situation, as the game world is persistent and machine acts (weather, nourishment, zombies) as well as other players will be a continuous threat. The game mechanics are based in simulating real-life survival: food and water have to be located and consumed on a regular basis, rain has to be avoided, so as not to lower one’s body temperature, and physical injuries need time to heal, but do so only after the use of bandages and medicine. Deciphering which rules exist, which actions are possible in the game world and which are not, and deciding when they are necessary for survival, consequently highly motivate player action. But since no narrative action is pre-scripted, both the exploration of space and the concentration on the present are central to the experience of the game. 

            The concentration on the present is further enhanced by the persistent game world, which DayZ most effectively implements by operating with a persistent identity system that allows the development of the character over several sessions. Players will spend many hours of play to advance their character – not in skills (as in a role-playing game), but in terms of the amount and quality of the equipment at hand, which becomes the most important determining factor of survival. But, as Carter, Gibbs, and Wadley note, „[u]nlike other FPS games, in which death is a minor 2-10 second setback before rematerialization, death in DayZ involves the permanent death of this character, and loss of all items and advancement“ („Death“ 1). Once dead, all progress made on this specific character is lost and a new character needs to start a new journey. This game mechanic underscores the need to explore the environment, highlighting the spatiality of the digital text, while at the same time flaunting the categorial transition from human to zombie characterized by the thanato-politics of the game world. 

            Aside from the player’s ‚ludic‘ need to explore the world, another important aspect of spatiality needs to be noted of DayZ – that of the landscape, which is a virtual 230 square kilometers large (cf. „About“). In presenting an environment modeled on post-apocalypse aesthetics and not restricting movement, DayZ allows players to freely explore the „graves of a failed civilization“ (Christie and Lauro 2), not just passively view a predetermined path taken by film characters. In the game, the player decides where to go, which ruins of contemporary society to explore – dilapidated villages, decrepit military bases, or rotting urban centers. 

            Science fiction traditionally highlights the possibility of a specific and relevant future by alluding to its historical construction – a formative aspect of the genre that Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. refers to as „Future history“ (6). In his view, SF presents plausible „micromyths of the historical process,“ making use in its representation of „techniques of realism“ and „the characteristic qualities of naturalistic narrative“ to retain the „integral connection between present and the future“ (6). But SF constructs these ‚future histories‘ as „weightless“ as they „incur no obligation“ to act: „SF lacks the gravity of history, because it lacks the gravity of lived experience“ (83). SF is playful and any responsibility or moral obligation felt is a „chosen responsibility,“ as „the cause-and-effect chain of human and natural events is emptied of the fatality of fact and experience“ (83f.). Because the events are imagined not experienced, no obligation to act is drawn from them. 

            DayZ, on the other hand, re-inscribes its future history with exactly that moment of „lived experience,“ even though the life lived is virtual. No verisimilitude and naturalistic narrative need to verify the experience of a ruined landscape and the death and destruction of the zombie plague, as players clearly experience it themselves. As such, DayZ as digital SF does not need to enact „literary plot structures […], employing metahistories as their raw materials“ (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. 84), but can instead create its own (individually performed) ‚history‘ in each virtually experienced moment. The persistency of the game world and the character identity further enhance the responsibility of the actions and the authenticity of the experience, highlighting the individual’s risks of liquid modernity.  The game world ruins may seem lifeless, but each open door, each dark passage can prompt an attack by zombies or hostile players – called bandits –, resulting in injury or death. The game world is in a permanent state of exception and each exploration carries with it categorial risk (of turning from human to zombie). The precarious presence of the player in this world and the dangerous traversal of its bleak, hostile space thus force the reality of the dystopian future on them in a much more direct way than any filmic or literary adaptation ever could. Moreover, as Krzywinska argues for any horror game with first-person mode (such as DayZ6), the subjective perspective that players inhabit offers an even more direct experience of threat: „there is increased visual proximity to what lurks within such shadowy places, heightening the sense of contact. This closer proximity to danger builds disquietude and tension…“ (210). 

            Through its mechanics of necessary exploration of the gamespace and the lived experience of the science-fictional world, DayZ thus highlights the precarious position that humans face in a thanato-political reality, in which no institutional security guarantees the players status.  It is important to note that this marks a departure from the traditional SF focus on narrative plot structure or the genre’s emphasis on historical knowledge and processes of cognition. Instead of embedding the contemporary human condition in a historical past and representing it through „vividly detailed imaginary discourses“ (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. 82), the game favors the player’s immersion into and direct experience of their precarious condition. For example, focusing on the present and using decisive movements and speed to avoid threatening situations will make the player better at surviving and – in lack of a measurable endgame – winning the game. Ideologically then, this neatly reflects the reality in liquid modernity, where due to the individual’s need to stay ‚ahead of the game‘, as diagnosed by Bauman, „[s]peed of movement has today become … the paramount factor of social stratification and the hierarchy of domination“ (151). In contrast to most zombie films, DayZ offers only no real reprieve from individual risks, and thus in order to become an ‚ideal survivor‘, players will have to skillfully negotiate the given gamespace and adapt to any situation encountered in the experience of survival. 

3. Community of Storytellers 

But exploration of gamespace is not the only goal that DayZ offers, as the website makes clear. The additional goal to survival is, the site claims, that „[p]layers can live through powerful events and emotions arising from the ever-evolving emergent gameplay“ („About“). This would most certainly suggest an underlying narrative mechanic to the game. And interestingly, though there is no single pre-scripted narrative thread that players can follow throughout the game, DayZ is nonetheless one of the most story-generating games available for play. Only, it does so not in the expression of one definitive (game-)text to be analyzed, but in the form of a network of distributed and narrativized experiences across several other media platforms. The stories generated by the game are experienced and authored by the players – the burden of making sense of this world lies not with the authority of the game designers but rests on the shoulders of the individual players. 

            The individual experience, which is ‚infused‘ (as Frelik termed it) with a narrative, is different for each instance of play and does not follow the pre-scripted logic of many commercially produced games. As an open-world game, DayZ could be compared to games such as Dead Island (Deep Silver, 2011) or Dying Light (Warner Bros., 2015). These open-world (or free-roam) games normally function on the interplay of the dual event structure of exploration and narrative action, providing two explicitly different sets of tasks for the player. On the one hand, these games feature a strong narrative arc (the main storyline) that provides the core motivation of play, the background and history of the protagonist, as well as the explanation of the state of the world. This is where the emotional affect for players is generated when the zombie virus outbreak forces the protagonist to organize and keep alive a band of survivors and find a vaccine against the virus. But this main storyline is also where players find out about the conflicts of different survivor groups, the power struggle to control the vaccine and heal infected or to weaponized it instead. On the other hand, these games also provide a large number of open-world events that contribute to the main narrative only in so far as that they add to the development of the character (by providing money, experience points, skills, equipment). These events are tasks set for the characters, of which a certain number needs to be completed to progress in the story, but which are otherwise interchangeable and placed around the game world only to foster its exploration. 

            As such, open-worlds – zombie, SF, or otherwise – provide both scripted (specific events at specific locations) and semi-scripted (interchangeable events at specific locations) game events. These games thus enact an authorial narrative, a traditional ‚future history‘ of predetermined events unfolding in the present, whereas the experience (the infused narrative) of the game merely changes depending on the player’s preferences for the order and location of the events. The narrative of Dead Island will be different for players only in so far as to how many and which tasks they perform for the various survivors, which supply runs they make and how many zombies they kill on the way – the main story of finding the vaccine and getting off the island remains the same. DayZ challenges these ideas of authorial future histories by eliminating all scripted events. Instead the game places the story-engine (so to speak) into the hands of the community of players, who freely infuse their gameplay with any number of narrativizations, none of which can be foreseen or repeated as they depend on the interaction of individual players. 

The origin of DayZ as a mod already hints at the fan community’s potential to determine authorship in narrativizing the game experience. Not only did creator Dean Hall (himself a player of ARMA II) strip the military structure (units, orders, missions) from the original game, he also eliminated linear narrative progression and teleology from it – thus creating a free-roam world for exploration. The game does not provide any prescription of actions and thus negates all authorial determination of one specific history, in a sense mirroring the evanescence of any institutional order. In keeping with the origin as a mod, the stand-alone does not re-introduce those elements back into play. What motivates narrative in the game is the interaction between players – which is an essential feature of the game, as some actions will force players into cooperation7, while the scarcity of objects and the generally harsh environment mostly lead to competition. 

            As has been mentioned, the setting is a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world and the game mechanics simulate the survival in such a world. But since no authorial narrative exists, players are free to experience any form of ‚infused narrative.‘ Especially in the social encounters with other players, one can find an immense variability of gameplay that players engage in. The mechanics limit the number of actions available to players in terms of their usefulness for a (military-based) survival simulation. Nonetheless, the range of options is fairly flexible and complex. As mentioned before, as a utopian impulse, players can opt to behave as ‚ideal survivors‘ (heroic, honorable etc.) and thus seek out temporary certainty by socially organizing in communities. Players have gathered in camps, helped each other, and even cooperated to build a helicopter (the game allows repair and tinkering). As with other zombie fictions, the zombie (as representative of zoe, bare life) in DayZ functions to throw into stark contrast the meaningfulness of bios (human life), which is volatile because of the constant threat of transformation. But in comparison to the films, community and cooperation are not an ideological ideal the narrative presents viewers, but rather something that players need to actively choose and then work extremely hard to retain. The alternative behavior, negating such utopian order, is far more common and possibly even more successful at survival: players have lured others into deathmatches, have killed and maimed for entertainment, and have abandoned others in desperate situations just to measure the scope of their reactions. The focus of each game experience is determined by the individual actions of each player, thus refusing an ideological ideal. 

            Other SF, and this includes open-world SF games, construct their fictional worlds in what Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. calls „an intensely epic activity,“ meaning that the „protagonists‘ subjective experiences and ideas are reactions to the prior conditions of the world, while these imaginary material things and institutions are, at a deeper level, the emanations and repositories of the imaginary world’s conflicting and contradictory values“ (82). In this he references György Lukács (who in turn makes use of Hegel’s distinctions) when thus claiming the epic to mediate „the totality of life“ within „a world of illusion which requires […] a very limited number of men and human destinies“ (Lukács 92). Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. explains that the totality of life in SF is transported by interconnecting „megahistories of the human species“ with the „personal histories of protagonists in a critical moment of that covering megahistory“ (82). SF thus favors the depiction of personal events in response to larger historical movements, the actions of the protagonists emanating onto the larger epic totality of events, as in the above-mentioned filmic examples of zombie fiction. 

            Once more, DayZ breaks with those traditions in that it forecloses the possibility of representing the „totality of life“ by separating the personal history of the player’s character from any form of megahistory – the game does not enact the imaginary world’s values and negates any grounding of action within a social or historical environment. If a character’s actions usually reflect the imaginary value system and its continuous historical development from an imaginary present, the game’s lack of grounding in history and social environment of the imaginary world forces all meaning production into the present moment of playing the game and towards the players themselves. It is the players that reassemble their experience into an infused narrative, and it is thus their task to reflect the totality of life – including the creation of values and environments for their own imaginary worlds, as I will show below.   

            As stated above, zombie narratives normally favor stories of ideal survivors with heroic values and humanist morals that reflect a megahistory of how those ideals have shaped our world and will need to be retained/restored even under the greatest external duress (that of a zombie onslaught). Interestingly, the position of the reader/viewer in those narratives allows these values to be safely tested against the thanato-political reality of the diegetic world, i.e. readers/viewers will witness (most) members of the survivor group switching categories, turning their human bios into the zombie’s zoe. The critical potential of DayZ lies in its radical elimination of the safe distance with which to negotiate this transformation. The only way for players to experience the thanato-political threat of the zombie and its transformative nature is as an absolute, i.e. when they get killed, their bios-based experience ends. Zombie life is incomprehensible to human/player experience and cannot be simulated; the transformation cannot even be witnessed.   

            Returning to the idea of infused vs. authorital narrative, it is interesting to note, that because the game rejects the notion of a megahistory and its interconnection with personal histories, players have begun not only narrativizing their experiences but also assembling them into chronicles and histories8 in a variety of media, from video platforms to fan-based art, from forum discussions to personalized blogs written from the perspective of the character.  They can be argued to be „spreadable media“ (Jenkins, Ford and Green), media formats that have made possible communities of practice that reframe and remix existing media content, spreading the production of content away from authorial agency allowing counter-narratives to complement the original story. In DayZ there is no original story though (aside from the short introduction on the website) and storytelling is completely ceded to the player community. Whereas other SF media might thus allow alternative histories to emerge alongside the official, traditionally constructed variant, DayZ foregoes the official version completely: DayZ history is rather comprised of individual, fragmented and sometimes conflicting accounts of personal, lived experiences. This is in complete keeping with liquid modernity and its drive towards individualization. Instead of official and political leaders setting an agenda of values and norms via policy, society now looks towards the „example-authority“ (Bauman 68) of individuals, i.e. any account of personal experiences might provide guidelines for behavior.

            In providing a personal historical account of an idealized and heroic character, the traditional (SF or zombie) narrative „implicitly determines or defines the rest of human species-history“ (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. 82). By rejecting such an authorial agency, DayZ offers an alternative reading of a future history. The individual history is not a representation of the totality but one of many possible actions within a given situation. Instead of personal history reflecting the totality of life, DayZ offers a mosaic of perspectives, not a singular instance, but a network of stories that connects into a large representation of a post-apocalyptic society. Through its nature as played (and lived) experience, DayZ’s stories are anecdotal and not totalizing. In keeping with Bauman’s concepts, institutional (authorial) ethical values are non-existent and instead the individual is left to decide on what is right and what needs to be done. The mosaic of stories, as result of the game mechanics, reflects a weariness of the game itself with authorial control, which consequently places its cultural ‚meaning-making‘ firmly into the hands of the individual. Consequently, DayZ does not offer a mythological grand narrative or megahistory of ‚how the world came to be‘ or ‚how to act,‘ but instead a multi-faceted simulated experience of the post-apocalypse, a network of autobiographies formed especially by its gray areas of ethical decisions. Instead of focusing on one limited viewpoint of institutional authority, the player-generated narratives of DayZmap out the reality of liquid modernity’s individualization. 

4. Ethics and the Simulation of Human Response

Returning to the idea that interconnecting personal histories with megahistory implicitly draws upon the represented value system and social environment to reflect the totality of life, in this last part of the article I would like to examine the value system and social environment of DayZ. Important to this discussion is the game’s nature as a simulation, which is, as Gonzalo Frasca reminds us, a „model of a (source) system […] which maintains […] some of the behaviors of the original system,“ meaning that the game mechanics react „according to a set of conditions“ (223) – in our case, DayZ models a physically realistic environment, human biology, as well as a fictious zombie apocalypse.9 The system modeled is hostile towards the player as much as surviving without the amenities of civilization would be in reality. Creator Dean Hall states that he wanted the game to display a social context defined by „a primal struggle to stay alive“ (cit. in Campbell, n.pag.). The main premise of the game was thus to force players into moral decision on the basis of scarcity, hostility, and biological survival. 

         Because of its social premise and its dystopian theme, the game is a „performative simulation[n] that convey[s] a sense of malleability of the future“ (Frelik 234), in this case the ‚what if‘ of a post-apocalyptic world. Unlike other zombie apocalypse media, though, DayZ does not provide a guideline for acceptable actions. Where a game like Dead Island in its storyline sets certain moral standards by promoting a specific behavior (helping other survivors) and punishing others (bandits attack the player and for that behavior have to be killed to progress the story), DayZ does not offer such base line. Because of the lack of an authorial account of history and social environment in DayZ, the protagonist’s actions are not prescribed by moral values of the imaginary world. The game does not propose specific actions or goals and does not evaluate the actions of its players. It is purely a simulation of human interaction – an „anti-game,“ (Hall cit. in Lathi, n.pag.) constructed so that it provokes the most emotional responses in the players, giving them the greatest freedom to explore moral choices.  The set-up of the gameplay – scarcity of resources, hostility of environment, no goal but survival, permanent death for characters – further intensifies the emotional reactions, turning the game into an „increasingly fascinating social experiment“ (Kelly, n.pag.), in which to test player behavior „in controlled life-threatening situations“ (Cristofari and Guitton, n.pag.). 

            Consequently, in order to render DayZ into a narrativized account of personal history, players are forced to assign moral value to their character’s and other player’s actions themselves. The moral values reflected in the (externally and medially separate) narrativized accounts are not representative of the imaginary world (and thus of authorial voice) but rather reflect the player’s personal morality based in the material conditions of the simulation. While the gameplay allows players to cooperate, it does not allow the formation of typical multi-player communities (‚guilds‘) that act cooperatively. Carter, Gibbs, and Wadley explain it concisely: 

While players can form ad-hoc groups to achieve goals, these groups are not recognized by the game software, and unlike in other online games, the members of a group are not prevented by the software from turning on each other. While there is motivation to form cooperative groups, there is also motivation to betray one’s group-mates. Thus many interactions in DayZ appear to take the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. („Friendly“ 1) 

            The consequences are important: Without game mechanics structuring social interaction, the default for an encounter between two players is suspicion and caution, not the utopian impulse instilled by ‚ideal survivor‘ narratives. And it is a justified default, as many commentators have pointed out and the DayZ forum stories underline. As an example, Mike Pottenger sums up a few scenarios: 

Even seemingly friendly survivors can and will turn on you, and lots of survivors are there specifically to hunt other survivors […] 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. (n.pag.)

            In combination with the permanent death mechanic, which Carter, Gibbs, and Wadley have shown to result in an „increase in the perception of personal investment in their character“ („Death“ 3), players will continuously find themselves confronted with moral dilemmas, in which they have to choose to trust another human or act in self-interest. But at least in terms of their social and historical environment, these reactions will reflect not so much the moral values assigned by the game (which are neutral) but rather the player’s moral decision based in their personal history and gameplay experience so far. Instead of prescribing a set of values that determine the ‚ideal survivor‘ and a representative history that reflects the totality of life, the game consequently allows open experimentation with actions and moral values. The option to test out one’s behavior and emotional reactions is the ultimate advantage of a simulation such as DayZ over the traditional forms of SF and zombie narrative. Reflecting on liquid modern realities, the game does not provide an institutionally prescribed ideal of human behavior but instead allows for the full range of choices. The responsibility for action lies with the individual, as does carrying the emotional burden of their consequences. 

            DayZ thus reveals a powerful alternative media form of exploring the world and our condition within it. The game is an explorable space that offers its users the option to simulate a post-apocalyptic world and experience the difficult moral decisions that are inherent to this kind of dystopian world. At the same time the nature of this simulation allows not only the possibility of exploring emotional reactions to the world, ‚trying on‘ the different moral decision, but also the freedom of experimenting with utopian moments. In its focus on the present and its refusal of simple representational history, the game provides an alternative reading of science fiction as lived experience, in which meaning is not fixed by an authorial narrative, but rather needs to be understood as a mosaic of different autobiographies, reflective not of the historically generated value system of the content but of the interaction of that content with the personal histories of its users. As such, DayZ is an ideal example of how digital media can change our existing conceptions of SF, enhance our understanding of the genre, and add new perspectives from a different kind of practitioner.


1   The term „zombie bank“ has been used in debates of financial crises from the collapse of the Japanese economy of 1993 onwards and continues to be used in both academic and journalistic discourse, for example with the current Euro crisis (cf. Cowen). The term „zombie category“ refers to „nationally fixed social categories of industrial society […] which have died yet live on“ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 27) and is used to describe aspects of the dissolution of nation states in a globalized world.

2   DayZ was released in January 2012 and could only be played by players owning the original game. Within a few months over a million players joined the mod created by freelance designer Dean Hall, prompting him to accept employment at ARMA’s studio, Bohemia Interactive, and start development of a stand-alone version of DayZ. The mod has since been turned over to the player community for development and play on the ARMA IIservers. The stand-alone version was released as ‚early alpha‘ in December of 2013 and has since sold 2 million copies. It is available as a commercial download, but by May 2015 still not a ‚finished‘ product. In the following, I will not distinguish between mod and game (unless explicitly marked), as my argument is broader in scope. I will not discuss detailed changes between versions. The general mechanics of, the ideology transported in, and the emotional reactions to the game remain basically the same with both mod and stand-alone.

3   For a discussion of the commercial, technological, and gameplay values that led to the development of zombie simulations after 1996, see Krzywinska „Zombies.“ For a historical overview of survival horror as a genre, see Pruett. For a discussion of the specific mechanics and the generic boundaries of „horror, survival and ludic-gothic“ (55), see Taylor; cf. Weise („Rules of Horror“ 241). 

4   The mod essentially did not have a character creation screen, only the option to play male or female, and has had several issues with defaulting newly spawned avatars back to male, even when players preferred their default female. Also, female avatars tended to be ‚buggy,‘ generating for example issues with certain armor and clothing, which could not be equipped. The stand-alone game offers a little more choice in character creation (gender, skin color, clothing), but has only a very limited range of customization, rather relying on a number of default models and several color-options for basic clothing. 

5   The HUD differs between mod and game but is kept to a minimum in either. In the game, the HUD will report the physical state of the avatar – hunger, thirst, cold, injury – via text message and in minimal detail of amplitude determined by the color of the message (white – a state is registered, red – a state is urgent, green – a state has been cleared). In the mod, five icons accomplish a similar task by being full, half-full or empty.  

6   Actually, DayZ offers two modes: The player can switch at will between the first-person and the third-person mode. Gameplay videos (e.g. on Youtube) show that often players prefer the third-person for travelling in open country (as the perspective allows greater visibility of the surrounding area), while switching to first-person for exploration of buildings and especially gunfights (as the perspective enhances the control over movement).  

7   One famous example is the transfusion of blood after heavy blood loss. Even if the weakened player has a blood packet, he cannot simply apply it himself, but needs to rely on another player to do so. In-game this has led to forced transfusions under threat of life, bribery, and betrayal after the cooperation has ended.

8   See the diversity of YouTube channels (i.e. at and forums that refer to their exploits as „DayZ Chronicles.“ 

9   As a procedural adaptation DayZ is also indebted to post-apocalypse narratives such as Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) or its 2009 film version by John Hillcoat. In these, a man is faced with the horror and the ethics of survival after systemic breakdown and the resulting extreme scarcity of resources. These fictions center on the depiction of the confrontation with other survivors and the character’s willingness to do what it takes to survive. DayZ, as simulation, provides the systemic breakdown and the scarcity, but human interaction and its moral dimension are left to the players. 

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Ursprünglich erschienen in Science Fiction Studies — PDF

Schmeink, Lars. „‚Scavenge, Slay, Survive‘: The Zombie Apocalypse, Exploration, and Lived Experience in DayZ.“ Special Issue: Digital SF. Science Fiction Studies 43.1 (2016): 67-84.