Why Are Survival Games Popular?


I rarely question why my Steam library is increasingly cluttered by survival games, or why my hands instinctively move towards my credit card when the latest Early Access title releases. It is a genre that routinely excites my interest, one of the few I grow giddy playing. But the days when DayZ was a cutting-edge concept—one cited for revealing human nature’s darkness—are long gone. Now, the genre is as vast as the worlds it features. Some view it as a virus infecting developers looking to cash-out on a sure-win concept. But, whether I’m delusionally addicted or my passion is justified I can’t stop playing survival games. Why am I enthralled by scavenging supplies, fortifying wooden castles, and negotiating with mischievous players?

The central precept of survival games is a shining concept, “Freedom.” They’re founded on a foggy framework without linear progression, only basic parameters to stay alive. Thirst, Hunger, sometimes Sanity or Boredom, are pressures motivating players to sneak into a corrupted home patrolled by the undead. Players have complete autonomy in how basic conditions are met—the path they tread is marked only by their footprints. And once thirst is quenched players move on to forge their story as the narrator. Whether that be as an architect creatively engineering an impressive fort or as a bandit-hunter protecting Bambi’s from malevolent predators; there is no confinement to how one chooses to play. Survival game are, in one sense, more true to a superfluous interpretation of “RPG” than traditionally endowed titles, because survival game’s scaffolding is carved from Freedom, imparting autonomy on the player.

Unscripted interactions create electrifying experiences, where spontaneity and player desire blend into epic moments: a server unites against two unruly players, frozen hands crawl to the safety of a cabin, or two guilds go to war slinging grenades and C4. Sometimes the limits of autonomy border masochism, or suggest misanthropy, and that’s fascinating (as far as I’m concerned). Players are free to push the limits of behavior through the game’s parameters. And the actions exhibited in the short span of one Rust life reinforce years of Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s research. But autonomous behaviors make each interaction fresh and captivating. No two instances of conflict will mirror each other, compelling play even after a sour gunfight. And a reborn life is privy to a new set of possibilities—new theaters to explore.

The survival genre is predicated on immense world's unhindered by obvious boundaries. When I was a kid I raged against game world’s penned enclosures. I wanted to explore, uncover hidden crevasses or find some sanctuary tucked away behind a bend. And survival games foster the drive to investigate the world—travel 225 km2 to find a hidden hunting post harboring a Mosin. They demand player curiosity to be fully appreciated, playing on people’s appetite for novelty. And exploration is an aspect of freedom, the sense that the fork in the road indicates infinite paths. Players choose whichever way ensures their continued existence.

Survival games feed on a deeply rooted instinct as animals encoded with a selfish gene, tapping into a romanticized fantasy pervasive in comfortable civilization. Stories of survival capture the imagination, from Les Stroud’s weekly expedition to the Endurance’s tantalizing tale. And survival games place players in an environment where basic needs are the objective. We impose ourselves as the thirsty, vulnerable protagonist—playing as ourselves trapped in primitive situations, forced to survive not only the environment but other wary survivors. Forging an existence from limited resources, negotiating a vast landscape, and combating overwhelming odds to make it through the night is endlessly rewarding. It's a dynamic isolated from civilization, one where the only edict is survival.

Survival games are notorious for being unforgiving. But the challenge is invigorating, and the self-determined sense of success is endlessly gratifying. In the world of a survival game the player is thrust into hostile situations that must be overcome through all available freedoms. They tap into a primitive drive to explore and persist, offering endless situational possibilities thanks to limited conditions and impromptu player actions. Culminating in an experience unlike any other genre-defined game.

But that’s my humble opinion. Why do you like survival games?

From Mega Man II to Ape Escape, I've been playing games for as long as I can remember. I've spent months killing porings in Ragnarok Online and more recently lived a second life in Eve Online. I usually play as gUMBY, gUMBLEoni, or gUMBLes in-game.