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Currents: humans vs. zombies

Zombies: A Viral Infection?

If a zombie apocalypse were to occur here, would you be prepared to defend yourself?

Over the past few years zombies have successfully infected brains across the country and world; invading one mass medium after another, zombies have staggered to the forefront in the mad world of monsters. You can see zombies in films like “Night of the Living Dead” or “Zombieland,” read about them in World War Z by Max Brooks or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, or battle against them in video games like "Dead Rising," "Left 4 Dead" or "Resident Evil." Although the concept of zombies has been around for hundreds of years, the term “zombie” was not introduced until 1929 by William B. Seabrook, in his book Magic Island; since then, the term has stuck with these brain-eating creatures of the dark. With the growing popularity of zombies, it's no surprise that the latest worldwide craze is Humans vs. Zombies, a week-long game of modified tag.

It all started in 2005, when Brad Sappington and Chris Weed implemented the idea at Goucher College. With study abroad a graduation requirement there, Goucher students were able to take the game around the world; soon people in Denmark, Brazil and Australia were playing. The game went viral with posts on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. Currently more than 200 college and university communities play Humans vs. Zombies, along with high schools, summer camps, military bases and public libraries.

The game itself is quite simple, and the rules are easy to follow. Before beginning, the players must obtain a piece of fabric and tie it around their arm or leg as a symbol that they are humans; second, the players may obtain some type of weapon that stuns the zombies for 15 minutes, whether balled-up socks or Nerf guns. This week-long modified game of tag officially begins with an individual(s) designated as the alpha zombie, immune to Nerf gun bullets and socks.

Last semester President Tom Galligan was the alpha zombie and this fall the role was taken on by two faculty members. At the end of the week, the zombies lose if there are humans left. If all the humans are infected, the zombies win.

Colby-Sawyer became infected by zombies in the spring of 2010, when Professor Eric Boyer and his student, John Clarke, brought the game to campus. Thus far, Clarke is pleased with the results; approximately 100 students played last semester and around the same number joined this fall. Clarke is not the only one pleased with the game, though few students could be found who were able to speak on the record. President Galligan, who was travelling for the college during game week, says he's happy with the way the game energizes the campus.

“The idea is to have fun and to learn a little bit about how an epidemic spreads," he says. "And spread it does.”

-Lisa Stanulonis '13

HvZ: It's Not Just a Game

By Eric Boyer

It was a cold and drizzling Tuesday night, but this did not deter the small group of humans that had hunkered down in a makeshift structure. They spoke with a mix of bravado and tension, confident in their ability to hold off the zombie hoard that was gathering in the distance. They had already survived for the entire week, and now simply had to survive one more challenge.

The survivors' strategy seemed solid, and they only had to protect the crude beacon for 30 minutes. The zombie hoard had other plans.

Three whistle blasts pierced the stillness, and the hoard attacked en masse. The hoard, approximately 50 strong, quickly dismantled the structure protecting the humans, and within seconds the zombies declared victory.

Though it had all the tension and suspense of a George Romero film, this scene took place on a soggy November evening in Mercer Field. These zombies, and the humans attempting to escape them, were all students playing the game Humans vs. Zombies. To understand why students could be found huddled on Mercer Field on such an evening, it is first necessary to understand the ground from which this game arose.

In the fall of 2009, a student in my Pathway class named John Clarke asked me to serve as faculty advisor for a new “capture the flag” club. I agreed, but our planning quickly became much more ambitious, thanks to an e-mail sent to me by Associate Dean of Students Robin Davis. The e-mail contained a link to an NPR account of Goucher College's “Humans vs. Zombies” game, and I was instantly hooked. Why bring students out for a one-night game of capture the flag, when we could have them running scared for an entire week?

Humans vs. Zombies is essentially a week-long game of tag. All players begin the game as humans, with a strip of cloth tied around their arm or leg to show they are playing. One or two unmarked “alpha zombies” exist on the campus, and it is these original zombies (played last spring by President Galligan and this fall by Professors Donna Berghorn and Kathleen Farrell) who begin tagging players. When a player is tagged, they move their strip of cloth to their head and become a zombie who must go out to tag other humans. Humans can defend themselves by stunning a zombie with a Nerf gun or throwing a balled-up sock, which freezes the zombie for 15 minutes and allows for escape.

Why do students play? The answer is easy. The students who play are among the many who have watched a zombie film and had two simultaneous thoughts: 1) If I were in this movie, I would survive and 2) If I were a zombie in this movie, there is no way the humans would survive.

The game took place outdoors (not inside any buildings at all), and only on the Colby-Sawyer campus, but it was quite a harrowing (and community-building) experience for all involved. By the last day of both games, approximately 10 remaining humans were facing an army of zombies that out-numbered them 5 to 1. These few survivors have been telling (and retelling) their stories of near escapes, desperate rescue attempts and elaborate strategies. Just getting to the dining hall for a warm meal became an epic struggle for survival.

While no humans survived the fall semester, the small group of spring survivors were honored with the Zombie Cup, an impressive trophy created by ceramics student Chelsea Sumersall. The Zombie Cup, along with the pictures of survivors from the spring semester, will be on display in the College Archives.

Overall, the event was an incredible success here at Colby-Sawyer. In both the spring and fall games, over 15 percent of the student body took part, with Alumni Relations, Admissions, the college radio station, the Courier, the college archivist, Safe Zones, and even President Galligan getting into the fun in one way or another. As faculty advisor, it gave me great joy to see how this event kept students on-campus and outside over a beautiful fall weekend, with old cohorts dissolving and new ones forming as the number of humans dwindled.

While it is a constant struggle to make sure the game does not disrupt the college's academic mission, or pull in non-players, the spring and fall experiences have already become part of Colby-Sawyer legend. Just ask any of those who survived the now-famous “Battle of Ware Hall” in the spring of 2010, or any of the unfortunates who did not manage to guard that beacon on Mercer Field...

Eric Boyer, assistant professor of Social Sciences and Education, serves as faculty advisor to the Humans vs. Zombies events at Colby-Sawyer College. Joe Delaney '11, a Communication Studies major, created the video trailer for the HvZ game. The photos above are still shots extracted from his video.

Editor's Note: The short story "The Couple Voted Most Likely to Stay Together" by Colby-Sawyer's Director of International Student Services and adjunct faculty member in the Humanities Department David Elliott is included in the Granite State zombie anthology, "Live Free or Undead." Find out more here.