Zombie Apocalypse Pt 2: The Digital and the Physical

I mentioned at the end of my last post about Humans Versus Zombies, the ARG I helped run at my school, that it was a game of unusual digital and physical qualities. HvZ can’t be said to be either a digital game or a real-world game—instead, it’s both.

The game is, to be frank, far too complicated to handle without some kind of database keeping track of it all. Zombies must “feed” on a human every 48 hours, or be removed from play– “starving” to death. When a zombie tags a human, they share the kill with at least two other zombies, and it’s impossible to know who is near starvation without the database. Kills were reported through the website, meaning that any zombie who made a tag had to high-tail it to the nearest computer as quickly as possible, to keep the database up-to-date. Luckily, Dartmouth is covered in email terminals. (If you’d like to learn more about Dartmouth’s weird-ass email culture, and about why we all use an email client that’s over 20 years old, take a look here.) Our website listed who was a human, who was a zombie, and how much time each zombie had left before they starved

The database we used included each player’s real name. This meant that the game wasn’t an impersonal experience, the way online multiplayer frequently is– everyone knew, or could look up, the actual names of the other players. Humans Versus Zombies made new friendships. It gave us all a chance to meet a ton of people we’d never seen on campus before. The name-list was also important for strategic reasons: it allowed the players to assemble email lists and form group strategies—but also forced them to curate those lists, keeping track of who was alive and who had recently ‘died,’ becoming a zombie. One zombie player wrote a piece of code that scraped our website for data and kept the zombie list updated automatically. The humans, lacking such tech-savvy leadership, were constantly plagued by ‘dirty’ email lists that allowed zombies to listen in to their plans.

The game itself, then, didn’t take place entirely in the real world. The email lists were the site of most strategy and communication for both teams, and at times, the physical world seemed almost secondary. As mods, we did most of our communication with the players through email, and the NPCs were developed almost entirely through the in-character emails we sent each team.

The digital and the physical continued to combine in unexpected ways as the game progressed. Two zombies used a pair of laptops and Skype to create a remote “observation camera” in one of the campus dining spaces. They sat in a nearby building, ready to run outside and pounce on any player they saw heading out the door. The auto-updating zombie listserv is another example of how digital activities had more-profound effects than many of the real-world ones: the airtight zombie list meant that they had the advantage when it came to communicating and planning attacks.

The structure of the game itself was also influenced by digital game forms. I wrote our HvZ quests using a template I’d learned while writing quest proposals for an MMO at my job over the summer. We used terms like “NPC”, “fetch quest,” “escort quest,” and “monster drop” while talking to players, and they understood us—the terminology of digital games was the language of this physical one. When the campus newspaper interviewed us about the game, we were forced to use references to World of Warcraft to explain some of the things we were doing with HvZ.

So, is Humans Versus Zombies a physical reenactment of a digital MMO? Or is it a traditional real-world game of tag with some aspects made possible by the digital? When I’m working on quests, I’m tempted to see it as a physical re-enacting of an MMO, but when I’m at the quests themselves, dressed up like a mad scientist and running through the snow, I tend to see it as a primarily physical game, like the games and activities I ran while working at a summer camp several years ago.

Problems we’ve grown familiar with through digital experiences plagued our physical game. We had plenty of HvZ trolls: disruptive players who made other players’ lives miserable in the same way that online trolls often do in games. We received complaints about a player trash-talking other players with race-based offensive speech. We received complaints about cheaters who went around without their identifying arm-bands and head-bands—essentially, players who “hacked” the rules with a simple run-around to gain a major advantage. The game is psychologically frustrating for human players, who often feel stranded or picked-on as the zombie horde camps outside their dorms or classrooms. Some responded to this stress with long, hostile email flame-wars. We saw rule exploits. We had a player actually kick another player in anger. I was surprised, over and over again, with the similarities between these problems and the kinds of offenses I’ve grown familiar with through online multiplayer games.

So, what’s the deal? Were players behaving like this because that’s how people are, both online and in the real world? Is trolling endemic to play, whether digital or not? I tend to see the internet not as a lens which warps human behavior, but as a lens which shows how we really want to behave, rudely throwing the cover off of the things we actually think and believe. Abstracting ourselves from the heart of a matter– whether that abstraction comes through the anonymity of the internet, or through the abstraction provided by the nature of play itself– allows us to forgive ourselves for things we’d never have done in “the real world.” Play can sometime make us forget ourselves.

Luckily, we didn’t have many truly offensive players—most of our problems were solved without much fuss. Our next game session, which will most likely begin in March, will include some rule changes which should greatly decrease the amount of disruptive behavior we see. We’re going to be more positive to the players, put a greater emphasis on levity and fun, and make sure that the stress doesn’t break the human team the way it did this winter.

Right now, player motivation is our biggest problem. While most humans took the transition from Human to Zombie team with grace, some refused to continue playing after they’d been tagged and ‘turned.’ Some said it was because they only liked playing if they were allowed to carry Nerf guns—and zombies have to go empty-handed. Some actually thought that there was less “honor” in playing a zombie than a human. Campus attitude may have had something to do with this: the zombies only won if everyone became a zombie, and on an Ivy-League campus filled with kids who seem to believe they’re entitled to special treatment, there is little appeal to the ‘everyone wins’ scenario. In the future, we’ll have to think of new ways to motivate the zombie players. We’re considering giving them special rewards for staying ‘in character’ and wearing cool costumes– for invading reality in cheekier, less-stressful ways. We’re going to make more quests which cater to their play style. We’re also going to hand-pick the Original Zombies from a pool of volunteers, making sure that they’ve got the enthusiastic leadership skills necessary to bind the moaning horde together. See, players take this game much more seriously than we’d anticipated– though, to be frank, we should have anticipated that.

HVZ, as an ARG, is all about taking things “too seriously”– and I’d like to discuss HvZ’s status as an ARG now, and discuss what I think the point and possibilities of ARGs, both digital and ‘real-world,’ actually are. The game’s official website, maintained by the Goucher grads who invented it, doesn’t actually talk about this. It calls the the experience ‘a game of moderated tag,’ and ‘a social opportunity,’ but its nature as a social alternate-reality game is never mentioned.

See, it’s the collision of the game and reality which makes HVZ so intense an experience for its players. They must figure out how to live their real-world lives—with all their attendant responsibilities and requirements—alongside their new, high-stakes lives as human survivors and zombie horde members. At one point, a student complained to me that a group of zombies had prevented him from getting into an academic building until twenty minutes into that class period. “What do you want me to do about it?” I asked him. “Sometimes you have to choose: am I going to stay a human or am I going to go to class?”

ARGs are exciting because they disturb and stress our ordinary lives. Because they require us to live in two worlds at once, never securely in the game or in reality. ARGs are dissonant. They can be upsetting. I saw our game of HvZ threaten actual, real-world friendships. This can happen in a wholly fictive, non-ARG game, but ARGs increase the possibility of real-world disaster. They invite us to forget what reality is, to alter our real-world behaviors and priorities. They’re games which ask us to take them “too seriously.”

As players discovered, there’s a thrill in that. We play digital games because they give us new and exciting experiences which, we say, we could never actually have in “the real world.” But we play ARGs because they force us to have those intense, liberating experiences in the real world. Too often we defend the digital with the claim that it provides us with those “new and exciting experiences,” as if there really are emotions or intense mental experiences in games which we can’t have out here in “the real world.” But the kind of mental energy we associate with a really great digital game– the feeling of being wrapped up emotionally and intellectually in an un-real experience– is definitely not exclusive to the realm of the digital. Now that I’ve done HvZ, I disagree with the idea that the ‘digital’ nature of digital games is what provides us with that unusual high. There are plenty of game experiences in that “real world” which meet and match the kinds of mental or emotional experiences we’ve grown to associate with digital games.

Because these experiences are much harder to organize in the real world, however, most of us have never experienced them. It’s impractical to expect that we could. A I said in my earlier post about HVZ, digital games offer us a high-intensity mental or emotional experience in exchange for a low-intensity outlay of physical energy. That’s the main convenience they offer us, and that– above and beyond promises of sweet graphics and sound– is what makes digital games special. They make our ambitious structures easier to achieve.

We could have those emotions in the real world, too– we could have that rush here and now. But it would be hard to set up. We need people to plan and design that experience for us, whether that designer is a digital expert or a hard-taxed real-world organizer. They give us the opportunities. And HvZ is one of these opportunities.

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  1. Reading this makes me feel like I graduated too soon, as I really would have liked to participate in this. Denise finally broke down all my defenses and got me into tabletop RPGs for the first time, and I finally was able to get over my fear of all the stats-tracking and math and realize it’s basically participatory story-telling with elements of improvisation. This kind of game seems to take that to an even grander scale, making the story-telling so participatory and encompassing that it becomes a second life, and it does sound really exhilarating.

    I look forward to what further insights you gain from the March session!

  2. Laura, reading this while I’m still writing up my Neptune’s Pride AAR magnum opus made me notice the obvious parallels between HVZ and NP.

    NP makes demands of your real life, requiring you to take it seriously – devote part of yourself to it if you intend to win. HVZ goes a stage further, pervading your physical universe, not just the mental, public spaces become a battleground.

    NP offers a form of role play, and you need to have develop a certain poker-faced game personality when working with or against other players. The game is all about the conversation and actually very little to do with the mechanics of fleets and economy. HVZ needs to feel and live your role for the entire duration of the game.

    Both are invasive and restructure your life. How would you characterise the difference? If at all?

    • And good luck reading through all my splendid grammatical typos, there.

    • lauramichet

       /  February 16, 2011

      You’re totally right about the similarities.

      Because I ran the game, I didn’t play it, and I have no idea how I’d be as a player. I suspect I’d be a frantic.

      I’ve lately been a bit obsessed with these kinds of real-world intrusions– I’ve played a few larpy kind of games with friends lately, I’ve maintained in a long-term minecraft server with housemates, etc. I’m currently very interested in the idea of games that intrude, games so close to our real lives that they are disruptive and stressful instead of entertaining or relaxing. Why do we want to play them so badly? Why are they so much fun? Anyway, HVZ creates interesting opportunities.

      So: I think your comparison is worthwhile. For NP, it’s the time investment that makes us take it ‘too seriously’– for HVZ, it’s the physical circumstances of the game itself, the fact that it’s taking place all around you and you’re forced to experience it every time you go outside.

      At any rate, this whole experience has made me much more interested in larp design/].

      • The first part of your article I thought “HVZ sounds awesome, like cookies.” Then the second part of the article – detailing some of the “problems” of the game and pressures on the players, made me realise that I might not have taken to it as well as I thought. And then it was BANG – Neptune’s Pride.

    • @Harbour Master Yeah, I had the same thought when I read through this.

      I found it particularly interesting that, like NP, a large portion of HvZ seems to take place outside of the delineated playing space. Somehow, these intrusive games become so important to us that we end up creating entirely new play mechanics to better keep us in on the action. NP regularly sees players checking opponents’ Twitters and discussing strategy outside the game, while Laura’s HvZ game expanded beyond its physical-world beginnings to include auto-updating listservs and Skype-equipped surveillance laptops. There’s something fascinating about these games which we extend so far out beyond the developer’s original intentions.

      • lauramichet

         /  February 17, 2011

        This is the most interesting thing about running the game– you have no idea how people are going to react to the things you set up. It was my personal policy during the missions that I would respect clever solutions to problems– barring solutions that were actually dangerous. (Once, the humans tried to shoot a crossbow bolt or something between two buildings, to make a zip line to send supplies down! We didn’t allow that one.)
        The funny thing about HVZ is that there isn’t a firmly deliniated playing space. Anything you do, anywhere– that’s now in the game. After a few days, you start to feel like the game’s assaulted your life. But hey, that’s fun! Because it’s unusual!
        I suppose I could connect this back to 1000 Blank White Cards, the game that’s 100% player-created-content. When you’re running a game of HVZ, you have precious little control over anything: because the game IS people’s day-to-day lives, they’re the ones in charge. The experience was more in the hands of the players than we initially believed. It’s an important fact to remember as we prepare for next term’s game.

      • Thinking some more about this. While the two games have similar implications, NP channels your attention from day-to-day life to a special private place called the browser whereas HVZ seems to redefine it, changing the complete meaning of your environment.

        You could still argue that NP is more “harmful” than HVZ in terms of life impact.

      • I would attribute the harm to the fact that NP interferes with a normal day by making you think about it all the time, whereas HvZ integrates directly into your day (which is no longer normal).

        Like getting sick, you approach the day differently, but you mostly go through the same motions. The difference is that you carry a Nerf gun instead of antibiotics and your quest doesn’t necessarily lead to the pharmacy/doctor’s office.

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