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“A bit of torture never hurt anyone”: thoughts on DayZ and sadism in video games

The vast majority of people would never claim to derive pleasure from causing others pain or discomfort. Nevertheless, openly gory games are extremely popular. DayZ, a survival horror game launched in 2013, has built its user-base by offering the possibility to capture, harm and torture other players. Established in the current market as a torture simulator, the game is profiling a new genre of in-game sadism and thereby forcing us to ask: to what extent can we express virtual inhumanity and still call it entertainment?

(Vania Sparro / 17.04.2016)

Assassination, cannibalism, aggression, abuse: most gamers are more than acquainted with virtual violence. The association between sadism and video games has a long history of resonance in public media and critics who have been expanding on the issue, often surfed a hypocritical wave of moral indignation, targeting the gaming world as degenerative and leading to a rather simplified demonization of gamers.


Three years ago, Bohemia Interactive launched DayZ, a thought-provoking game that allows players to hunt, torture, eat and kill other users in a realistic scenario. Settled in a post-soviet area during a zombie-apocalypse, DayZ became (in)famous as the first torture-simulator dealing with real players.  


Complete absence of authority, torture-mechanics coded in the game and users who are actively role-playing as psychopaths, rapists, serial killers and genocidal figures: these elements make DayZ not only a unique game, but a powerful social experiment, whose outcomes ultimately reveal a lot about our sadistic disposition.


The official forum and the social communities voicing the conflicting opinions of the players, are still filled with debates on the matter and the game seems to own the power to critically raise again a controversial inquiry: what are the moral boundaries in realistic multiplayer games? Are there actual risks of online-normalization of pathological behaviour?


How games give expression to our sadistic tendencies

There are multiple kinds of sadism configured by video games. The first type, probably the mildest, is displayed by games whose sadistic experience is not declared in the explicit purposes or  narration and it appears only as a possible side-entertainment. A good example is The Sims, considering that its almost ridiculous sadistic outcomes – like leaving intentionally your Sims in a swimming pool without a ladder – are experienced by most of the players.


A more deceitful sort of sadism is the so-called ‘griefing’. Usually related to massive-multi player games, this second type of sadism is perpetrated by players who ostracise, harass and verbally abuse other players, disturbing or making impossible their experience of the game. From World of Warcraft to DotA, this type of sadism is not part of the mechanics of the game itself.


A third genre is represented by games including actual violent torture or aggressive scenarios. In this case, sadism is a significant constituent of the game, consisting in one of its major appeals.The highly criticized Grand Theft Auto could be considered an example.


There are actual concerns and worrisome consequences when we consider a fourth type of sadism, represented in games where torture is the one and only structural component. Mostly created by indie developers, an example of these games is the popular Torture Game. If the title is not sufficiently self-explanatory, the player can dismember the body of a realistic rag-doll. The victim is captive, tied up and ready to be tortured, without any possibility to fight back or escape. The player has the option to customize the aspect of the victim with a picture and he is equipped with several weapons of torture, such as nails, ropes, razors and spikes.


Since 2008, the game has been played more than 76.000.000 times on and it is played more than 2000 times daily. These numbers are not surprising, considering the existence of hundreds of other sites devoted solely to gruesome free-to-play games, enabling graphic imagery and body horror (as,, These data suggest that Torture Game is not an unicum, an isolated example catering the morbid tastes of a restricted circle of internet users. Instead, these games constitute a relief-valve for the sadistic interests of a vast range of people.


The case of DayZ: from survival game to torture-simulator

Against this backdrop, DayZ is probably the only game offering more kinds of sadism combined. In fact, through a voice-proximity chat that allows you to communicate with other players around you on the map, you can merge an effective virtual torture of an avatar and a real psychological torture of a player. Thus, the torture can consist in verbal abuse or in-chat harassment and a virtual action of physical harm. You can tie up other players, break their legs or knee-caps in order to prevent them to run away, you can take away their clothes, place a burlap sack on their head, handcuff them, force-feed them with rotten food until they vomit, oblige them to drink bleach, cut their hands, keep them as captives to the point they are obliged to beg to kill them or they simply log off and “commit suicide”.


The game is not driven by a conventional narrative progression. The land is covered with forests and buildings, populated by zombies and humans. The only form of progress is the gathering of supplies (food, medicines and weapons), and the encounters with other players, that get you stronger and wiser. Every time your character dies, you are forced to start off on a different location of the map, without any loot or gears. Rules are ambiguous or practically non-existent: there is no victory or score, no clear purpose except survival. Unencumbered by chores and duties, the player is left in a 225 sq. km world where he is neither rewarded nor punished. There is no law, there is no code. Therefore, there is no ethic. In this regard, DayZ is incredible, obliging the player to use his own creativity and imagination to carry out the game.


DayZ was not created as a torture-simulator. Yet, a spontaneous and rough role-playing as psychopaths or rapists had spread rapidly throughout the game. Why? Merely because there was the possibility to do it. A large number of active players running in a sandbox with no prescribed rules, no execution of chores and no effective challenges, lead obviously the ecstasy of the game to shift from the simple game’s logic to a disturbing extension of the necessary human interaction.


Only twelve hours after its launch, Steam – an online distribution platform for games – registered 88,000 downloads of DayZ. The purchases doubled within one day. One of the most interesting aspect is that the game was released in early access and it still has tons of bugs, glitches and performance issues. Yet, the user-base kept growing.


Virtual words and virtual actions but real-life repercussions

It seems reasonable that most of gamers entering a survival horror game, probably would find entertaining to be haunted by a psychopath. Nevertheless, multiple users testified online their experiences of cyber-torture and cyber-rape as not pleasant. Observing the social mechanics of torture in a multiplayer environment, the “victim” usually participates in the role-playing and does not know how to escape abusive players, since logging off has always lethal consequences within the parlance of the game. There are also hundreds of threads online portraying the perspective of all those players who enjoy the sadistic side of DayZ:


»Just because I force a handcuffed person to drink bleach and wear no pants in a video game does not make me a psychopath in real life.«


»A bit of torture never hurt anyone.«


Probably everyone could discover a mild fascination for sadism and torture in a similar virtual context of heightened stimulation where the player, freed from the burden of ethics, can live a temporary loss of self. A problematic aspect of this immersive experience “outside the cage of reality”, is that it gives the illusion of no existing consequences for our virtual actions and words.


Besides the fact that it could be extremely disturbing to hear the voice of someone pretending to rape your virtual body, it becomes troubling to trace the differences between latent abusive traits covered by the surface of role-playing but expressed in a consensual context of entertainment, and actual degrading actions that completely overcome the boundaries of online interaction.


On the surface, the issue can be associated to a problem of online language. Most of the time the harassment takes the shape of virtual threats of rape and violence, which easily appear empty only to the person who does not reflect on what their social implications are.


Casual racism, casual homophobia, casual sexism, and all the discriminatory acts that are haunting our culture and society, are too often minimized in their virtual declinations.


The questionable social norms that are in force on the internet, make every attempt to raise concerns about virtual abuse odd. But minimizing online harassing behaviour means to accept it, in all its articulations. The fact that this form of virtual persecutions is perpetrated in a realistic-torture scenario is crucial for a constructive critique, not only of this game, but also of the turn that the relation between sadism and video games is taking.


Why DayZ should not be banned or censored?

DayZ is not a game that encourages cooperation between players and discourages harassment. The developers will probably continue to add more weapons and torture-mechanics to receive more feedback from their users and attract new ones. The complete lack of authority and the state of nature of the game will plausibly spark the creativity of players towards new forms of virtual abuse.


Nevertheless, DayZ should not be condemned or considered a negative virtual experience as a whole. This game has more than one positive function. In the first place, working as magnifying glass, it uncovers the tastes of the masses. Sadism is a human tendency, probably less anomalous than we could imagine. And it needs a relief-valve.


Furthermore, it offers us a portrait of the cultural weaknesses of our society, giving a glimpse of how much we usually underestimate the damaging power of words. Abusive language and the lack of awareness of its negative power is a bigger widespread issue, not only confined to internet.


At present time, the effective trouble within the game is that there is no variety. The creativity of the average player seems to rely mostly on its deeply instinctive and gritty side. A form of legislation might not be added to the game, since its absence is what makes DayZ so appealing. But some aspects seem to have to be implemented, in order to drive the imagination of players towards other directions. For example, a solution could be to build a system of reputation-points for the users or imposing a system of defined in-character role-playing, allowing people to choose to experience the game as sadists or victims.


What emerges from the success of DayZ? What appears as a hackneyed video games-related problem is a lucid representation of major social issues. What seems to permit an increase of expressing inhumanity is actually just exposing how much we enjoy it.

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