Humans vs. Zombies: A Community Builder

Posted by Jesse Riggs

As someone who has organized at least seven games of Humans vs. Zombies and advised moderators around the nation and around the world on a few dozen more games, a current security chief of a small college, and holding a masters degree in higher education administration, I feel compelled to respond to Prof. Nechtman's concerns.  His concerns are all common, and perhaps legitimate, objections raised about the game that have been answered many times by students introducing the game to their campus.

First, I would like to encourage Prof. Nechtman to play the game.  Then he will have an opportunity to see firsthand the benefits I will outline below.  I hope he will at least take a moment to discuss it with the players on your campus.

Humans vs. Zombies has probably the greatest return-on-investment for student participation hours of any activity of which I am aware.  Students provide their own gear, props involved in gameplay are usually improvised from objects the moderators have in their homes, and it can be run from a free website.  Meanwhile it engages students for an entire week.

I agree that academically speaking the timing of this particular game is bad, and I hope the people in charge of scheduling take that into consideration next semester.  Ideally as moderators the organizers should have tried to schedule it for a week less likely to have important due dates, both to minimize impact on academics and to maximize the time players can commit to the game if they so choose.  Students are encouraged to go to class, that is how the game progresses.  If no one goes to class, no one gets tagged.  And then, also by virtue of the gameplay, students are going to hole up in a lounge or library until they absolutely have to cross campus again, during which time they just might study.

But, when Nechtman states that discussion of the game dominates pre-class discussion, he misses the obvious fact that this game is a tremendous relief from the everyday grind of class and homework, and an active alternative to video games or other sedentary pastimes.  HvZ is seen by many as an opportunity to put aside the hum-drum trapping of a college student, challenge themselves, and pit their wits against a campus full of adversaries.

And adversaries are only half of the game.  The other half is one's allies, those students who you instantly bond with because you are both wearing a bandanna either on the arm or around the head.  That bandanna is enough to begin a friendship between any two people.  In the moment they meet, as "humans," the bandana is all that matters, not the other person's political views, religious beliefs, or music preferences.  Players have a chance to connect with that person at the most basic of levels, where true character is revealed.  Honest, deceptive, brave, meek, loyal, or self-preserving, it will show during a game of HvZ.  I find that most players are honest and loyal, and oftentimes brave, though no one can really blame the guy who sprints away in the face of a zombie Horde.  Discretion is the better part of valor, after all.

Around the nation, HvZ games have been organized for fundraising efforts.  "University of Oregon's Humans vs. Zombies raises money for Japan," and "Humans vs. Zombies; Battle across UA's campus raises money for charity," are just two of the headlines trumpeting the social good that can be accomplished by the players of HvZ.

HvZ encourages teamwork, critical thinking, and situational awareness, all extremely useful skills in the emergencies you believe are made light of by this game.

Nechtman drew parallels between a game of HvZ and real mass shootings. I put forward that HvZ could prevent such shootings, by reaching out to and including the individuals who are in danger of following the path that leads to such atrocities, giving them a circle of friends and peers they were otherwise lacking in their lives, who will pull them back from that path.

HvZ is, by and large, an unusual game.  I hope everyone who plays will forgive me for saying we're all geeks and nerds in some way.  Great numbers of us will admit to having difficulty fitting in with the "cool" people, those people who will look at a game of HvZ and say "What a bunch of babies, running around with toys.  Why don't they play a real sport?"  Or "It's ridiculous that they can't find a normal activity to occupy their time," as if normal was something to which they should aspire.

Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, James Eagan Holmes, and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not "normal."  No one can defend or condone what they did, but we see a pattern of individuals existing on the fringe of their society, drawn apart because they did not go in for "normal activities," or were too awkward to function on the party scene, or suffered from depression.

HvZ doesn't cure depression, it doesn't suddenly give you the ability to be the life of the party, but because it is not a normal activity, I suggest that it can and will draw in, accept, and help to heal those individuals wounded and scorned by "normal" society.

Additionally, Nechtman seems to propose that the tragedies of the past should interfere with our enjoyment of the present.  Why did these people who caused those tragedies lash out, except to vent their anger, fear, and despair, and impose those feelings upon others?  Will we lock down colleges and post guards and ban toys so that students hurry to class, not for the thrilling "fear" of being tagged, but for fear that if they linger too long they'll be marked as suspicious?  Fear that the next monster with a gun will catch them?

I speak in the extreme, but extreme circumstances were the examples Nechtman gave.  To say to students "You should not play this game where you pretend to fight fictional zombies because real people have been killed by other real people," is just fear mongering, giving stage time to the darkness, and snuffing out one of the bright points on which we should be focusing.

When Nechtman finds proof that Humans vs Zombies actively damages Skidmore's reputation, recruitment, or academic mission, he should most certainly bring it to someone's attention.  Because that will mean HvZ is failing its purpose.  Until then, he might take time to consider his purpose as an educator and goals of HvZ.  I believe he might find HvZ worth supporting, provided they don't schedule it during any big exams he administers.  That would be annoying.

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