What have I been doing?
Well, I recently finished running a game of Humans Versus Zombies at my college. I and five others spent over a month preparing for the event, and by the time we got underway, 136 people were signed up to play. It lasted for six days, during which time I learned quite a bit about game design.
HvZ is a game of Nerf-gun tag—crossed with an ARG, crossed again with Airsoft, and crossed yet again, for a spectacular final mixture, with an MMO. It’s like the popular campus game Assassins, but it’s team-based, runs for a shorter period of time, involves quests and rewards, and is probably more psychologically-stressful than Assassins has ever been. It’s complicated enough that you’d probably benefit from reading the rules, found here. Bear in mind that although it’s been played at hundreds of college campuses around the world, each permutation is unique. (Ours was made particularly unique by the fact that nearly a foot of snow fell while we were playing.)
Photo by Shaun Akhtar
The game begins with all but a few players on the ‘human’ team. They’re armed with Nerf guns and they wear armbands to identify themselves as players—and they carry these guns and armbands with them wherever they go: to classes, to the gym, the library, and to every meal. (It’s a high-visibility game. While we were running it, we were interviewed by the campus paper and nearly interviewed by the college town’s local newspaper.) When the game begins, almost everyone’s in high spirits. There’s something quite exhilarating about carrying a toy dart blaster around inside official buildings on a college campus, even if you know you’re not allowed to play with it inside.
As the game continues, the zombies grow in number. We started with three Original Zombies. They had six hours to masquerade as humans and tag as many players as possible, after which they revealed themselves and began wearing bands around their heads. Anyone tagged by a zombie becomes a permanent member part of the zombie team. They don’t carry Nerf guns—instead, they tag players by hand. Every time they’re shot by a Nerf dart or hit by a thrown sock, they’re stunned for fifteen minutes, after which they return to play—the zombie team is an implacable, restless horde.
HvZ, then, is a game where the teams have unequivalent and unequal powers. Each team is forced by these unequal powers to pursue a different basic strategy—different ways of moving through campus, different ways of gathering and collaborating, different ways of approaching objectives and goals. And each team, as we went on, developed its own character and attitude. The humans threw paranoid Sun Tzu quotes around on their hastily-constructed, poorly-protected listserv and had long, philosophical arguments about whether it was “better” to win the game as a human or a zombie. The zombies assembled a “kill list” of high-profile players and spent hours lurking in central campus locations, waiting for anyone with an armband and a Nerf gun to show themselves.
Meanwhile, I and the other mods were putting together ‘missions’ for each team to participate in. Teams who completed their missions earned rewards—humans could win health packs to stave off infection, “clue cards” to purchase benefits, or increases to zombie stun time. Zombies, whose basic mode of play has them running far fewer risks than humans, were significantly harder to reward. We gave them decreases to stun time and offered them a “human disguise” which could be used to get the jump on unsuspecting human players. Unfortunately, we introduced that mechanic too late, and it was never used.
The missions themselves, however, were enormously fun to think up and put together. One quest asked the players to find objects hidden in snowdrifts while weathering attacks from the opposing team. Another required human players to escort an NPC to a remote location, where they then discovered a ‘zombie baby’—a game of Operation painted up to look like a zombie—whose cadaver they were forced to examine while under zombie attack. Another forced humans to split into small groups and run across campus while the zombies split into search parties to chase them down. One quest, designed to keep the players on their toes, simply tasked each team with a surprise cook-off involving vegetables we’d hidden in the snow. We’d planned for the final mission to involve a complicated construction task—the humans would have had to build a twelve-foot “radio tower” out of plastic children’s toys and a boatload of rubber bands—but we tested that one ourselves and discovered that it was actually impossible. We modified it at the last minute into a point-defense mission which asked the humans to defend a pre-constructed “radio tower” until “stealth copters” arrived to extract them. The humans ended up winning it, mostly due to poor zombie turnout at noon on Sunday.
I was more deeply involved in mission design than in the other parts of the game. Over the summer, while interning at a small PC game company, I had a great boss who taught me quite a lot about quest-writing for MMOs. I used that experience while writing up HvZ quests. Writing quests for a physical-world ARG actually has quite a lot in common with writing quests for a digital MMO. Like MMO quest writers, we balanced high-energy tasks with lower-energy ones to avoid stressing players out. We had to examine the space of affordances created by our ruleset—the kinds of actions players could expect to take—to figure out which situations would be the most surprising for players to experience, the most atmospheric, and the easiest for us to put together. We didn’t want everything to be escort and fetch quests, so we spent a long time thinking up as many unusual situations as we could. Early drafts of quests included the “Kiddie Pool Quest,” which would have required human players to move a kiddie pool filled snow or water across campus while suffering waves of zombie attacks, and the “Snowman Quest,” which would have required each team to make armies of “decoy” snowmen, facing one another across a battlefield, before engaging in a firefight.
Photo by Shaun Akhtar
Quests exist in HvZ to lure the humans out of hiding—if the entire human team turtles for a week, it’s no fun. That said, we had to make sure that our quests were as fun for zombies to play as they were for humans. Each team’s experience offers its own, unique excitements. The fun of being a human comes in the intense thrill of survival, and in the foxhole-style bonding players experienced as a team. People also derived a lot of entertainment from purchasing and maintaining their impressive Nerf arsenals. The fun of being a zombie comes in the glee of making a great kill: in successfully staking out a hard-to-catch player, or in chasing down a noble survivor as part of an enormous, coordinated horde. Friday’s quest, which asked humans to split into tiny groups to carry buckets of snow across campus, was perhaps the best-designed of all our quests. It gave the humans a chance to work stealthily in small groups, making heroic three-man dashes across exposed territory, and it gave the zombies a chance to organize themselves, work as a machine, and take on the predatory role in a campus-wide game of cat-and-mouse.
The trouble with quest design for a real-world game involving over 130 people, of course, is that you can’t ‘balance’ the quests before the event actually happens. We had no idea how players would react to being told that they must successfully complete a game of Operation while standing in knee-deep snow in a darkened stretch of woodland. We didn’t know whether the zombies would even be clever enough to locate the humans and stake out their kitchen during the cook-off quest. We didn’t know that our radio-tower-construction quest was impossible until we checked, last-minute, whether we could actually do it. Despite this, while talking to players afterwards, we were told that they probably would have enjoyed the construction quest anyway, even if it was practically impossible.
Photo by Shaun Akhtar
We couldn’t know these things, and there was no way we could have found out. Digital game designers benefit from the fact that playing games on consoles and PCs is, essentially, a low-effort task. Asking a team of beta testers to play through all the quests in an MMO is simply asking them to read words, press buttons, and do some critical thinking. We tendto think of and talk about digital games as if they are incredibly tough, active, whole-body experiences—but compared to the kinds of quests in HvZ, they’re not. If our HvZ mod team had included thirty dedicated athletes, we might have been able to test all of our quests before we finished writing them. Even then, however, we couldn’t have known how the heavy snowfall would affect play. We couldn’t know anything until it actually happened. That, I believe, was the most stressful part of the entire experience.
Another part of the game I was deeply involved in was flavor-text writing and the design of the game’s few recurring NPCs. The humans were led by “President Barack Obama”, whose written voice I designed to be brash, ultra-patriotic, and rather action-hero-esque. Here’s an example of one of emails we sent out the human team, telling them the time and place of an upcoming quest:
From the Presidential Desk of Valorous American President Barack Obama
January 13, 2011
Dear American Citizens of Dartmouth College,
It is yet again I, your President, Barack Obama. I am contacting you
now with the gravest of all requests, and I hope that despite your
dwindling numbers, the patriotic humans of Dartmouth will rise to the
We have recently discovered that Professor Schnapps’ laboratory was
doing strange experiments upon something mentioned in his notes as a
‘zombie baby.’ My CIA scientists were totally grossed out by mere
PHOTOGRAPHS of this ‘zombie baby,’ but you, my citizens, will have the
privilege of seeing it IN PERSON!
A patriotic whistleblowing scientist in Schnapps’s laboratory has
volunteered to turn the ‘zombie baby’ over to the human forces. We
need you to go and meet this scientist, then conduct whatever
operations are necessary to extract clues from it. Meet her between
Dartmouth Hall and the Fayerweathers at 5:30.
Godspeed, humans. May your justice fall on the heads of the zombies
like a screaming eagle from the skies!
For giggles, whenever we decided to bring out Obama as an NPC, we had him played by a white female dressed in a suit. She acted him as if she were a square-jawed president from a Blockbuster movie. The result was a weirdly dissonant, pretty hilarious character. Our Obama proved a favorite among the players.
The zombie team was led by “Professor Schnapps,” a fictional hippie-ish professor from the Dartmouth Medical School. He’d created the zombie virus by accident, as part of an experiment designed to cure world hunger (his experiment subjects lost the need to eat food at all—but gained a hunger for BRAINS). Whenever we brought him out as an NPC, I played Professor Schnapps, complete with a Dartmouth lab coat and a bald wig. Here’s one of the emails I wrote from Schnapps to the zombie team:
January 14, 2011
Oh, my darling zombies!
What a glorious treat I have for you today! You’ll be ever so pleased!
I’ve discovered from highly reliable sources that those fools in
Washington think they’ve created an antidote. How wrong they are! In
fact, the precious shipment they’re sending up to our little town is a
powerful serum which will boost your systems up just perfectly. For
once they’re being useful to us, eh? I feel like I should be laughing
maniacally right now, or something!
Well, zombies, they’ll be delivering the serum soon, and I’m sure
those last few pesky humans will be doing all they can to keep it from
you. Go forth, and make me proud! Meet in the Dick’s House parking lot
at 3:30 sharp to plan our interception of the goods!
Make daddy proud!
Professor Schnapps was also played for laughs. Frequently referring to the zombies as his “teeming, shambling children” and signing his letters with hugs and kisses, he was a neat spin on the classic ‘crazy mad scientist.’
In the days since the game has ended, we’ve been meeting with some of the more-hardcore players and coming up with new plans to make next term’s game even better. With the snow gone, the kinds of missions we’ll be able to put on will be even more interesting. Now that we’ve had a chance to “troubleshoot” the rules on our campus, we know what changes need to be made to the ruleset to make play smoother and more-enjoyable next time. We’re aiming for over 200 players.
I hope to follow this post up with a more-technical post focused on the strange interaction of the digital and the physical in Humans Versus Zombies. It’s a game that requires digital software to run properly—we had a database keeping track of who was a human and who was a zombie. Additionally, it was from the digital—mainly, from the email lists each team used to keep in touch and plan for missions—that the most interesting player-initiated behavior sprung. In a game where the play zone is identical to our real, everyday lives, “player-created content” takes on a new meaning.
By the way—if anyone out there reading this has ever put on a game of HvZ at their school, or is interested in doing so, I’d love to talk to you about it!