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.

The Zombie Apocalypse

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!
–Barack Obama

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

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!