You Just Have To Become Content

DayZ is such a deeply interesting game to me. It always has been. There are so many layers to how and why it works—and why it inevitably fails (for me). At any moment it’s a case study in wants vs needs, in fear of the other (present and not), in communication under pressure and more.

But more than that, DayZ is a story generation machine. It is a vector for the creation of organic, unpredictable stories. 

If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a survival sim set (primarily) on a map that measures some 236 km squared in area. All of this space is accessible, and the map is littered with points of interest. You wake up on a beach at the South or East of the map, and your only task is to survive for as long as possible. How you do that is entirely on you. You need to manage your food, water, temperature and health. These are your ‘needs’. They can ostensibly be managed without ever really leaving the area where you spawned. Sticks and Stones, those terrible weapons, can be used to hunt, gather and cook to the extent that if a player can manage clean water, they never have to do anything else.

But there’s a fly in the ointment in DayZ. There are Zombies. Undead human beings who roam Chernarus (the main map) and pose a limited threat to players as they attempt to fulfil their needs. The Sticks and Stones can be used to deal with these threats, but they’re not super efficient. And if the zombies outnumber the player, their health needs might change. They might need a blood infusion, or some meds to cure infections, or something else. And so players will need to venture out into the greater Chernarus in search of the items that will allow them to solve the problems before them.

That’s where things get complicated.

DayZ is not a resource rich environment. Finding an alcoholic tincture to sterilise a homemade bandage might mean a quick trip to a hospital, but there’s a strong chance the player isn’t the only one heading to that hospital. There are, depending on the server, up to 99 other players roaming the same map. And over 236 km squared that might not seem like heavy population density (I wouldn’t know, I’m Australian) but those players gravitate to the same areas quite often. And they might want the same thing.

That’s where incidences like the video above arise. When food is scarce, a can opener that can open some peaches without any spillage is a valuable thing.

At its core, DayZ is about the interactions players have with one another as they all attempt to survive. Theoretically, all 100 players could band together and survive fairly easily. They could self-organise and solve each of their needs in a very straightforward manner.

But that never really happens. Other players’s motivations are unknowable, and we fear the unknown. And so DayZ is commonly a game where might equals right.

Often that might is exercised through immediate, unspoken violence. Sometimes you don’t even hear the gunshot that drops you in DayZ. Built on the same engine as hardcore military simulator Arma, DayZ accurately replicates gunfire with an attention-to-detail that would make Tom Clancy blush. And that means there are weapons that fire rounds that travel faster than the speed of sound, which means a bullet might reach you before the rifle report does.

One second you’re running along, the next the screen is black and “You Are Dead” fades into view.

As stories go, this is… unsatisfying. It is Schubert’s unfinished symphony, exciting and tense and dramatic and then simply cut short for no reason. When you return to your corpse, whatever valuables you had on you are gone and so too are your murderers.

That’s why I always preferred robbing players. Robbery is theft accompanied by the threat of violence, which in DayZ requires getting within audible range of your target and issuing a set of commands to them to make sure they comply. With a robbery, there is a significant degree of risk for everyone involved. The robber places themselves in a vulnerable position by moving in on their target. The victim prays they don’t mess up, because they will wind up with a game over screen, their hours of hard work rendered moot.

But in my mind a robbery in DayZ isn’t even really theft. It’s at most a lopsided negotiation. The ‘victim’ walks away with their life and whatever wasn’t taken, but they also walk away with a story. Something to share with others about their experience. And in a game that is primarily a story generation machine, that has enormous value—so the victim comes away richer than they were before.

Obviously this is a transparent justification for my misdeeds. And I shouldn’t need to say it, but years of corporate writing have baked it into me—the above does not justify theft of any kind in the real world. The trauma of being threatened in DayZ is miniscule compared to that of a real world event. Video games are not and have never been real life.

But it is an honestly held position. I’m a storyteller. It’s who I am. I love sharing stories in the truest sense, swapping tales of excitement and derring-do with others while curbing the ever-present desire to top whatever I hear.

So of course I want to leave people with a story of their own. Maybe I rob them, we go our separate ways and that’s that. Maybe I rob them, we go our separate ways and hours later they get the drop on me instead. Maybe I try to rob them, we get fired upon and we spend the next 15 minutes locked in a building together as we repel a third party who are attempting to kill us both—unlikely allies at that moment. Any number of things could happen, because DayZ is a large and deep game.

And with the 10th anniversary of the above video around the corner, I found myself wanting to capture another moment like it.

While heading South with a mate, we heard gunfire on the outskirts of the town we were in. There was a lot of gunfire, but it was semi-auto at most. That is—not a high-powered fully automatic rifle. Not the weapon of someone with top tier gear, but not a ‘freshie’—the term for players who have only just spawned and who have almost nothing.

In other words, a viable robbery target.

My friend and I move from house to house as this gunfire continues. It’s frantic and multi-toned, indicating more than one weapon and more than one shooter. But as we don’t have eyes on the situation yet, we don’t yet know whether it’s a shootout between different players or if it’s two players shooting zombies.

Finally, my friend spots a bunch of zombie corpses at the base of a building—but that still doesn’t really tell us what has happened. Zombies in DayZ are attracted to gunfire, so there’s a strong chance they were drawn to the shootout—not that they were the initial (or only) targets of the gunfire itself.

So we continue to move in, exercising caution and spreading apart by a good hundred metres or so. I approach the zombie corpses while my friend covers me from a distance. Among the corpses is a dead survivor. Their gear has been all but stripped. And then, 400 metres down the road, we hear more shooting.

We happen to know that there is a military camp just down the road. The camp should have some high tier gear at it—up-to-but-not-necessarily-including the sorts of high-powered fully automatic rifles we were unenthusiastic about encountering earlier.

We still don’t know what went down at our current location. Our target might have shot the survivor, or the zombies might have gotten them while our target tried to play the hero. What we do know is that our target might be currently gearing up to a point that would make them difficult to handle.

So we sprint towards the military camp. The thinking is that our target is probably shooting at the zombies at the checkpoint instead of taking care of them quietly. We don’t throw caution to the wind, but sort of shove it in the wind’s direction a bit, a half-hearted underarm lob.

When we arrive, we realise that our assumption was correct—the camp is littered with zombie corpses, and a single survivor is running from tent to tent attempting to get whatever gear they can.

There’s a monkey in the wrench though. The sun is going down, and light is quickly fading. And neither I nor my friend can make out what weapon our target is currently holding.

Our weapons aren’t exactly state of the art. I have a pump action shotgun and a .45 calibre pistol and my partner has a rifle with a scope on it. I have the better vantage point, and from my point of view our target either has a .22 calibre rifle or a small CQB variant KA-74 assault rifle.

One of those weapons is vastly more dangerous than the other.

Not wanting to attempt the robbery at night time, and with the light quickly fading, I press into the camp while my teammate keeps his distance. Our target is oblivious to our presence, still looting in a tent when I arrive. I very carefully move to their rear, I take aim with my pump action shotgun, and I yell over the in-game voice chat at them.

“Put your hands up! Put your hands up! Stay where you are and put your hands up!”

They move a little, shifting around to find where the voice is coming from. This, to me, is fine. You can’t startle a person and not expect them to act startled. I repeat my commands.

“Put your hands up! Stay where you are! Stop moving around, and press F5 to put your hands up!”

They move a little more, but I still have them lined up. They’re not facing me, which is odd—they’re facing away from me. But that’s ok too. They don’t need to be looking at me, they just need to follow my directions.

Then they swap weapons. Their sporter goes away and they swap to a KA-74. They had both weapons. And instead of putting their hands up, they start to aim down sights.

“What are you doing?! I said put your hands up!” I yell. This is apparently what they needed to get their bearings on my direction, because they swung their rifle around to me.

I fire, pump my shotgun, and I fire again. As I fire the second time, their rifle barks a loud, angry sound, and my character falls to the ground. My screen goes black. I await the inevitable fade-in, but it doesn’t come. I am not dead, simply knocked unconscious by the gunshot. Over Discord, my companion says that the target is dead.

When I come to and after I have patched up my injury I loot our victim’s corpse. The buckshot from the shotgun made a mess of their gear—in particular, the plate carrier they were wearing. Shotgun shells are bad for your health, but less so when you’re wearing body armour.

We pick them clean of any usable gear, and as I stand over the dead body of our victim, I declare, semi-seriously, “You didn’t have to die, man. You just had to become content.”

“You didn’t have to die, man. You just had to become content.”

I say semi-seriously, because, well, honestly, I wanted them to become the subject of a video. A sort of ’10 Years Later, The Gentleman Bandit Rides Again’ style thing, where I could showcase how I still have what it takes to rob a person in DayZ. Partly for my ego, but mostly because I thought it would be a cool little way to link back to the original video, which at time of writing is just under 6000 views short of one million.

Which I guess makes it entirely for my ego, but that’s not important.

What made it less than entirely serious was that I don’t really view the world through the lens of content normally. But only by way of concerted effort. I spent years in the content mines, grinding out words solely to make ends meet. But seeing the world first and foremost as ‘content’ is a toxic way to experience it. It mutes anything but the most shareable experiences and ruins your ability to live in the present. In that content moment, you’re alive, but in between those moments you’re simply planning for the next one or editing together the last.

It is a deeply depressing and narcissistic way to look at the world and I did it for years. But while stories and content appear to be the same, they aren’t. A story is just that—a tale told well. Content is different. It’s built with SEO and “opportunities” and trends in mind. There are people who are masters at it, who use those tools to create content as well as any great storyteller can weave a ripping yarn, but it wasn’t ever me.

At best, I can use those tools to trick people into reading a story. Most of the time though, I just churned out ‘content’. And even being not very good at it, I could see that it was addictive and like all addictions, freedom only comes through concerted, repeated work. And it comes with relapses.

So when I said it, I was half-heartedly skewering my own intentions. Playing off my relapse as a joke. By saying it outloud, I laid bare my failure. It was cathartic in a self-deprecating way. Self-deprecation is the closest I usually come to sincerity on the internet, so it worked.

After that I continued to attempt to rob people. I had another encounter at the North West Airfield—a known combat hot zone in DayZ—where the person I attempted to rob simply walked out of the room I had them trapped in, sauntered over to stand directly next to me as I trained an automatic shotgun on them, and then they equipped a weapon and died. Everything they did was so slow and methodical, as if they were moving through treacle towards an inevitable conclusion. They heard my commands, stepped out of the room, contemplatively walked over to me, and then chose to die. It was utterly bizarre. Their teammate ran up the stairs seconds later and got cut down as well. Again, bizarre.

But more importantly, it wasn’t content to me. It was just a story. Without understanding their motivations, I have to assume it’s a fairly one-sided story—I can’t imagine the two of them telling their mates about the time they threw away a shitload of top tier gear for absolutely no reason.

Here’s another piece that might look like content, but it wasn’t.

I went into this engagement looking for a story. I didn’t want to rob them for a video, I just wanted to interact. To see what narrative might emerge. I expected the player to turn and shoot me, if I”m being honest. And then my squadmates would probably shoot him. And the wheel would spin, and the cycle would continue.

What I got instead was so much better—at least to me. A positive interaction in a landscape full of hostility. You can still see the hallmarks of a world of paranoia in the video. My squadmates Goofball and GreySquirrel rapid fire rattling off situational information to try to keep me safe, the other players—TheDutchman and Fist—equipping their weapons and briefly brandishing them out of fear.

The remark “You should have killed me, I deserved to die there,” was particularly illuminating to me.

But nobody died. We lit a fire at a house down the road and TheDutchman and Fist continued to loot through Staroye. Dre3money and GreySquirrel got their health back up. The story had a happy ending.

I turned it into a video not to make content, but to share the story. I wasn’t hunting content, but I kind-of got some anyway. And in the process of no longer treating the game as a way to create something specific, I was able to instead have fun with what it gave me organically. I didn’t make the original Gentleman Bandit video trying to create content—I had an experience and I wanted to share it with people.

So to the person who drew down on me at a little military camp on the North East of Chernarus, I’m glad you didn’t become content. You helped me become content.

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