The Ethical Game: Morality in Postapocalyptic Fictions from Cormac McCarthy to Video Games

IN CORMAC MCCARTHY’S 2006 novel The Road, a blight has led to worldwide devastation. A father and son are among the last survivors in the postapocalyptic hell, trying to stay good. At several points, they face hard choices and strive to take the easily identifiable ethical road; and so, when a potentially dangerous beggar approaches them, the son forces the father to help him. The son, as so many children, is terrified of not doing the right thing.

The Road presents a setup not very different from La Vita È Bella, the acclaimed 1997 Italian film directed by Roberto Benigni, which won three Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film. In this movie, which has led to much critical head-scratching, the father character (Benigni) helps his son survive the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by convincing him that survival there is an extended game: a make-believe show put up for their benefit, one that they can leave at any point if only they wouldn’t mind losing. In the end, the father is killed by the Nazis, but his lie helps the son survive. To the dismay of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has argued that the lie should have been mutual, the son confesses in the film that his father had fooled him — that the game, by hiding the true consequences of their actions, had kept the son’s goodness intact.

In The Road, there’s a game ongoing, too, but it’s one that is driven by the son rather than the father. It’s what we might call the Ethical Game, a game where the goal is being good whatever happens, and the prize is survival with a clear conscience. The son believes staying good is fundamental, even in the middle of the squalor and horror of the postapocalyptic world. McCarthy leaves us with little doubt that whatever destroyed civilization has turned the world into an unadorned hell: packs of feral humans roam the roads and forests looking for others to steal from, rape, and kill. The best organized keep pens with humans that they use as meat, taking one limb at a time so that the remaining meat won’t spoil. Life or death has become, for the majority of survivors, the only thing that matters — but not for the son. The son wants to keep some semblance of humanity. He wants to stick to the old rules, when stealing, cannibalism, rape, and murder were serious breaches of the existing order.

McCarthy is unwilling to provide a religious motive for the son’s attitude: religious cranks or wisemen are largely absent from the novel. By not clinging to his religion and abstaining from using God’s laws as a cover for the ethical impulse, the son cuts a more appealing figure for the average modern reader. But the absence of any overt motivation creates a problem: it would be easy to understand why somebody religious would want to be ethical, no matter the hardships, looking forward to rewards in the afterlife. Instead, McCarthy leaves us with that age-old question, one posed to atheists since the Greek antiquity: why be worried at all?

Atheists respond that the social case for ethics is strong. The Bible says as much in Matthew 7:12: “Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Immanuel Kant later spells it out clearly: treat others how you wish to be treated. This categorical imperative is practical, rather than ethical, advice. If you rape and murder others, you shouldn’t be surprised if others will try to, at the very least, punish you in return. Kant provides sound counsel for the person who lives in a tribe or a society. There’s always somebody stronger, somebody with a bigger gun. In The Road, the son is left holding on to Kant, and McCarthy does a good job of showing why this is the case. He paints the picture of a kid who has made himself a player of this Ethical Game as a way to set himself apart from others.


In many zombie movies, the Ethical Game is a way for the protagonists to set themselves apart from the flesh-eaters, both those infected and those quick to put survival before each other. The setup is typically similar to that of The Road, even if the writing is not often of the same quality.

The Walking Dead series is a good example. The Kantian imperative and the way the characters bend it, play around with it, and sometimes break it to survive is the driving force of the television show — rather than the interchangeable cast of characters who mostly die after a few seasons. The core of the “good guys” group is led by Rick Grimes, and by the fifth season, much has happened to Rick: he kills his best friend and loses his wife; his eldest son — whose role is similar to but less relevant than the son’s in The Road, given the larger number of characters — kills his mother when she becomes infected. And yet while Rick spends much of the series at the very edge of badness, he never crosses the line.

Like the father and son in The Road, Rick and his people fight to stay alive while staying on the side of the angels. Their struggle to stave off outright badness is doing much to keep the series going. Glenn Rhee (played by Steven Yeun) spends much of season five giving speeches about the need for toughness, but even he saves a man who tries to kill him, putting his own life in danger to drag him to safety. This idea is taken to the extreme in some lesser-known zombie movies. In Warm Bodies, from 2013, a zombie who strives not to kill people due to impulses left in his half-dead brain falls in love with a woman and protects her instead of eating her.

One must wonder to what extent these fictions are realistic. Staying good means that sacrifices must be made. In the absence of religion and society, what’s in it for the heroes? Turning from the world of artistic representation to the world of simulation, I believe the evidence presented by computer games indicates that it’s unlikely that the Kantian imperative would survive long in the absence of a functioning society.

Take the game DayZ. An online game where dozens of players share a large-scale map representing a postapocalyptic Soviet Union, most players are motivated by two things: the search for entertainment and something to do other than killing mindless artificial-intelligence-controlled zombies; and the practical constraints of a world where new players arrive wearing a T-shirt and with no other equipment than a torch, and must quickly find ways to feed and protect themselves.

A year of occasional DayZ gameplay, the perusal of hundreds of in-game videos taped by the players themselves, as well as a series of interviews I conducted with players for a story I published in 2014 at The Wall Street Journal, lead me to believe the typical DayZ survivor, the player who lasts longer than a few hours before being killed (re-spawned with only T-shirt and torch), doesn’t abide by the rules of the Ethical Game.

A recent innovation in gameplay in DayZ may serve as an example of my thesis. Cannibalism was made possible in the game in late 2014. Before that happened, there was no way for players to eat the corpses of other players; after the change, players could cook, cut, and consume corpses. Now cannibalism thrives in DayZ. Perhaps most players avoid it, but many don’t, and many indulge in it even when not strictly necessary. In a recent YouTube video, “The Cannibal Experiment,” one player conducted a scientific test. He would look for other players in a deserted city and lure them into a clearing in the forest where he kept a fellow player, his accomplice, in a cage. When they arrived in the clearing, the “scientist” told the “test subjects”: Please kill this guy. He’s a bad guy who wanted to kill and eat me. If you kill him, we’ll cook and eat him.

Several test subjects did as they were told, despite the protestations of the accomplice. They shot him, cut him up, cooked him, and, quietly sitting by the bonfire, they ate him. The last one in the video, however, reacted differently: he turned his gun to the “scientist” and killed him instead. Whether he ate the “scientist” is not clear in the video, but assuming he didn’t due to Kantian impulses, one wonders just how much longer he lasted in that forest, that earnest player of the Ethical Game.


In the example that opened this essay, the beggar that the father doesn’t kill in The Road, out of respect for his son’s scruples, turns out to be a harmless old man, who goes on his merry way, likely to be killed by the next guy he approaches on the road, or to die of hunger, thirst, or illness soon after. But the beggar could have been a vicious, dangerous enemy: he could have taken advantage of the father lowering his guard to take his gun and kill him and his son. This risk is often referred to in the novel and in many zombie movies: by the time the action starts, veteran “good guys” remember fellow goodies who got themselves killed because they lowered their guard, hoping the best of humanity. By not killing the beggar, the father and son were not only running the risk that the beggar would kill them — they also gave up whatever valuables the beggar carried with him: potential medicines, animal traps, clothes they could use in the cold forest, matches. By letting the beggar be killed and robbed by the next guy, they gave up things that could have saved their lives.

One goal of the Ethical Game in The Road is to ensure that the next civilization to emerge from the ruins of the blight is not built by those who have survived by savagery; the son is staying good also for practical reasons, so he can carry that particular bright torch into the future. McCarthy appears to embrace this response: at the end of The Road, the weakened father dies, but the son, right away, comes across a family that is obviously made up of “good guys,” and the encounter looks very much like that cherished start for a new, ethical civilization.

But while human civilization is an obviously desirable thing and, certainly, much superior to the alternative — a brutal ensemble of rapist cannibals — it’s not clear whether Ethical Game players would be the ones best positioned to bring it to life either. The biggest storyline in the fifth season of The Walking Dead, for instance, is an attempted return to normalcy: the central characters end up in a gated community that, somewhat miraculously, has survived the zombie epidemic almost unscathed, but the “good guys” struggle to adapt to a “normal” life, one they had thought they would never recover.

Religious or not, Kantian or not, the hope for any kind of future is all these heroes have. In the meantime, by playing the game, by keeping their hands clean and their consciences pure, they are giving themselves a significant handicap that they most likely won’t overcome. Wouldn’t it be more sensible for the “good guys” to act badly on occasion, or even often, in order to stay alive and available to build a new civilization? The father and son in The Road obviously don’t need to rape and murder whomever they come across to get themselves an advantage. But they might need to overcome their reluctance to indulge in the occasional moment of cannibalism. Wouldn’t the beggar be a decent source of extra rations? Perhaps the father could find a way to kill him quietly and tell the son that the meat was in fact pork — a version of La Vita È Bella’s game. Perhaps that father could tell that son: the future won’t be like this; in the future that you will build, this will be taboo. You won’t become the monster, and, if you do, your children won’t need to know. “To-morrow, perhaps the future,” to quote W. H. Auden, “But to-day the struggle.”


David Roman is a correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, currently based in Madrid, Spain.