The Ethics of Zombie Murder

I’ve played a lot of Dead Rising 3 over the past week and, for the most part, have really enjoyed it. While I’m not a huge fan of its story or cast of characters, Dead Rising 3 manages to remain entertaining for a pretty simple reason: it makes killing zombies really fun. Driving a flame-throwing motorcycle through a crowd of mindless monsters; wading into a mob of the shambling creatures with an electricity-spewing rake—the draw of Capcom’s latest entry to the open-world series is its gameplay, which centres on taking out enormous waves of enemies. It’s a basic kind of fun, meant to appeal to our lizard brain’s desire to slay monsters and—considering how much satisfaction comes from clearing a street of zombies—clean up messes.

Dead Island
Dead Island

I don’t think I’d enjoy it if Dead Rising 3’s streets were packed with human beings, though. The idea of slaughtering crowds full of real people is more nauseating than compelling since, y’know, there is a real sense of killing involved with that sort of act. The game only works as well as it does because it allows the player a level of detachment from the violence. Zombies aren’t people, so we don’t have to worry about our pesky morals spoiling the fun of killing them. Despite this, I still started to feel a bit strange about how much enjoyment I was getting out of playing Dead Rising 3’s hyper-gory campaign. Even though the undead don’t behave like humans, they still look an awful lot like them in the end. And close-up finishing moves as graphic as, say, cleaving an enemy in half with a jerry-rigged sword, only make this unsettling notion clearer by showcasing the normal clothes, hairstyle, and face of what looks quite a bit like an average person.

“Zombies apparently give us carte-blanche to be as gruesome as we want to be.”
Dead Rising is hardly the only videogame series to use zombies as a primary antagonist. Games like Left 4 Dead, the recent, action-focused Resident Evil titles, and Dead Island all provide examples of how the undead can serve as vessels for players to exercise unthinkable violence on, guilt-free. There are a number of logistical advantages that come with offering zombies up as an enemy force—they’re the most popular type of monster in mainstream fiction right now and their brain-dead behaviour provides an easy excuse for limited artificial intelligence programming. But, I think that aside from these reasons, developers (and players) also like being able to massacre an opponent that isn’t anything more than a walking corpse. Zombies apparently give us carte-blanche to be as gruesome as we want to be.

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There’s a lot of evidence of this kind of thinking. Advertising for upcoming zombie game Dead Island 2 focuses explicitly on the creative ways in which players can mutilate and murder their enemy (freeze ‘em and smash ‘em into bloody bits!); Dead Space’s zombie-like necromorphs must be defeated by mutilating their gangly limbs; Killing Floor and Resident Evil lovingly render headshots with stomach-churning sound and visual effects; Lollipop Chainsaw and Left 4 Dead take a macabre joy in allowing players to sever the limbs of their enemies. No idea is too violent for zombies, even if it would make us feel sick to see the same treatment applied to virtual humans.

Resident Evil: Revelations
Resident Evil: Revelations

I have to wonder if we should feel as complacent as we do about this. Zombies, since their earliest videogame incarnations, have always been closely associated with gore. But, the increasing graphical fidelity of games means that violence that used to look like nothing more than clumps of bright red pixels now seems a lot closer to reality. As gross as this can be, should developers be re-thinking the ways in which players are allowed to kill zombies? I’m not sure. I know that games like Dead Rising 3 wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if they didn’t have such a carefree attitude about slaughtering their enemies. Maybe it all inevitably comes down to, like all types videogame violence, a matter of tone. Maybe we should treat zombies like their human counterparts: accepting the brutality inflicted on them in games with either a serious or comedic intent, but questioning it in other cases. I don’t have an easy answer. All I do know is that the kind of violence we’re comfortable with in zombie games may deserve a bit more examination than it’s currently given.