Scenes From The (Virtual) Zombie Apocalypse

Joss Widdowson is the first photojournalist of MMORPGs, telling tales from the front line of an endless online war.

This picture comes from DayZ, a brutally realistic zombie game built on top of ArmA II, a popular combat simulator. The bulk of the game is simple kill-or-be-killed combat, but because of its loose structure and large player base (over a million), DayZ has fostered a lot of surprising talents along the way. There are doctors, wandering merchants and, most recently, at least one photojournalist.

His name is Joss Widdowson, a former arts student from York, England who cut his teeth photographing itinerant dancers in Ghana. His latest project is the thorough, clear-eyed depiction of the endless war going on inside DayZ. He filed his first report this morning, after a skirmish at a trading post the weekend before. "It was a night's work," he told me, "but a really good story emerged from it."

A group called Freeside Trading Company had staked out a camp where players could trade items safely, with remote snipers keeping the peace. A group of bandits appeared out of nowhere, driving the traders and their customers into a small tower, where they were picked off one by one. The climax came after the last traders had been wiped out. The attackers swarmed into the tower and a third group arrived to blow it up, killing the remaining attackers and wiping the slate clean.

Widdowson was killed halfway through, as part of a failed reconaissance squad, but thanks to some reporting outside of the game, he still managed to put together a surprisingly detailed account, complete with the kind of photography you usually see coming out of a war zone.

I was atop the tower photographing of one of their sniper team when it happened. The shot rang out and the sniper fell to floor before my eyes. I immediately hit the deck and crawled panicking back down into the tower.

The report is likely to be the first of many, thanks to the gushing response from Reddit and the DayZ fan sites. It's not just journalism about a game world; it's journalism told from within the game world, with all the reporting and writing done entirely in character. All of the names in the piece are handles. Skimming Widdowson's work, you might easily think DayZ's Chenarus was a real place. The only tip-off is the section on hackers, who frequently pop into the game to destroy the traders' camp, or turn all the players into chickens.

"I really didn't want the piece to be about hackers, but I do kind of have to mention them," he complained to me a few days after the skirmish. "It's their biggest problem."

ArmA II's universe is a pitiless one; it's the kind of game where you might easily spend 10 minutes walking to a battle, only to be killed by shrapnel as soon as you arrive. DayZ brings that same harsh realism into post-apocalyptic multiplayer. Among MMORPGs, it's unique in both giving players the power to harm each other, and adding no restrictions on how or why they might do it. Wagner James Au, who's been writing about DayZ and Widdowson since Widdowson's reporting was merely a plan, describes it as "sit[ting] between a virtual world like Second Life, which has no explicit game mechanics, and World of Warcraft, where the mechanics (character class, level, etc. etc.) are all-pervasive."

The result is total anarchy — not the utopian sandbox of Second Life, but a churning engine of chaos, catastrophe and death. Dying means starting over from scratch, and scavenging once more for the basic tools of survival. If you run into a more powerful player before you find a good item, you're likely to be robbed or killed on the spot. Life in DayZ is nasty, brutish and short — the average session is one hour and five minutes long, a figure which is proudly displayed on the game's homepage.

No mechanics also means no teams, no division between friend and foe. Any satisfying gameplay requires working together, but the alliances are informal and can be dissolved at a moment's notice, plunging the player back to the opening beach. Any institution — even one as meager as Freeside's trading post — is under constant threat of attack from roving bandits. On forums, players describe being forced into slavery by marauding gangs. One popular video shows two players boarding a bus, supposedly bound for a camp in need of workers, then being forced to fight to the death.

The game is still in alpha testing, but the official, standalone release is targeted for the end of this year with new items, more maps and scarier zombies. Hopefully, they'll do something about the hacker problem too. The developers have promised not to hide the game's rough edges, but as the community develops, the wild lawlessness of the current world could easily disappear.

As the game develops, it changes, and Widdowson's reporting is part of what shapes it. If he can get enough people excited about the trading post, for instance, they'll have more members on their side, and a better chance of surviving. "I feel really invested," he told me, "because, as I said, the game is awesome."

To casual gamers, this might not sound like fun. Even among DayZ aficionados, "fun" is rarely the word they'll use. More commonly, you'll hear "intense," "terrifying," or (from Widdowson), "I've never been as scared as a human being as I have in DayZ." It's easy to see why hardcore gamers like it, but it's definitely not for everyone.

Widdowson's dispatches, on the other hand, are for everyone. He's posting on fan sites now, but there's no reason the stories wouldn't appeal to everyone, or at least everyone who's seen a zombie movie. As Widdowson puts it, "It's the story of people. If society breaks down, it's the way that you get to the core of a person." If it's true for Dawn of the Dead, there's no reason it shouldn't hold true for DayZ.