Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Humans Versus Zombies; or The Place of Fantasy in Sports

Me as a zombie, preparing to rush the humans
This past weekend at Valparaiso University, I had the opportunity to play Humans Vs. Zombies, a role-playing game of tag where players are split into two teams: humans and zombies.  There are only a few zombies at the onset of the game, and their goal is to tag as many humans as they can, thus converting them into zombies, too.  The goal of the humans is to stay human, which means they must avoid being tagged by zombies.  Humans can use Nerf blasters to stun zombies (stunned zombies can't tag humans for a set period of time) and escape, but the way many games go is very similar to any zombie movie you've ever seen: the zombie horde wins.

I had a fantastic time playing.  For starters, it's a really fun game, and the moderators of this particular game did a great job of organizing gameplay in a way that forced humans and zombies to interact (as opposed to the humans hiding out in the various safe areas around campus).  They created a storyline that was humorous and playful, but that also showed thoughtfulness and awareness of the conventions of the zombie genre.  But, I would argue, there's more to Humans Vs. Zombies than simply a good time--it's a game that provides unique ways for its participants to interact with each other.

The valiant humans
I was the only non-student playing during this round of Humans Vs. Zombies, and while other professors at Valpo have played in the past, it is certainly a rare event.  But I don't think it should be.  One of the discussions that I frequently have with my colleagues is how we can connect with our students outside of the classroom, how we can get to know them as people, rather than just as students in a particular class.  Playing Humans Vs. Zombies gave me a wonderful opportunity to do just that.  Although there was always an awareness--on both my part and the students'--that I wasn't quite the same as they were, there was something about shooting a Nerf dart at someone that made some of the student/professor boundary drop away.

Perhaps my favorite moment of the game happened on Saturday night, when I got trapped in the student union with a group of 7 or so other "human" players--zombies had followed us there and were waiting at the exits for us.  We decided to wait for a while in the hope that they would get bored and try to find other humans to infect.  We were all feeling rather triumphant--our mission that night had been a success, and we had made it this far across campus without any of our group getting tagged.  And so as we sat talking--about the game, about classes, about campus life--there was a connection among all of us that created a shared sense of community.  While I loved the adventure of the game of tag, I think perhaps the best part of the game for me was this connection it enabled me to make with my students.

From the perspective of someone who studies fantasy literature, I found the most intriguing facet of the game to be the way that everyone worked together to make it happen.  While the name of the game is Humans Vs. Zombies--a name reminiscent of the way that sports match-ups are advertised--the game is played in such a way that shows that all the players are very well aware that they rely on each other for the game to exist.  Not only do the moderators carefully construct missions to provide balance to the gameplay (you can see the carefully constructed rules on their website), but players themselves also act in a way that shows that they recognize that their cooperation with the other team is necessary for the game to exist at all.  After Nerf-blaster showdowns, for example, where humans fire a huge number of darts at the zombies, there is often a truce called so that humans can collect their darts and the game can continue as intended.

The zombie horde, grouping for one last charge
This recognition of the importance of both sides is facilitated in part, I think, by the very nature of the game.  While I started out the game as a human, I ended up as a zombie--as did many of the other players.  I was firmly allied to the human cause while a human and disappointed when I got tagged, but when the game ended and the humans won, I was disgruntled that the zombie team (of which I was now a part) hadn't made a better showing.  The fact of the matter is that most players in any game will have played for both sides, and this fluidity of the teams and the interstitial identity of individual players (sometimes zombie, sometimes human, sometimes "infected," or in-between) encourages players to break down the binary described by the game's title.  Rather than humans versus zombies, the human and the zombies are working together to create a game that is fun for everyone.

So while I realize that Humans Vs. Zombies isn't a competitive sport in the same way that football, baseball, volleyball, or gymnastics are, I think the model provided by this game of recognizing the need for one's opponent is a very helpful one.  Not only does it provide a dose of cooperation to go along with the "us vs. them" mentality, but it also draws attention to those moments in more traditional sports where you see players from opposing sides helping each other up, congratulating each other, laughing after a match--moments that are often lost in favor of creating narratives of epic rivalries.  And it also seems to suggest that fantasy matters even in sports--both sides must imagine the same constructed world of the sport in order for it to work, and it is in this shared act of imagination that sports have their greatest potential to bring people together, rather than push them apart.

All photos courtesy of Owen Prough and Kristin Engerer.  Used with permission.  All rights reserved.