Professor vs. Zombies

Nate Kreuter reflects on what he learned playing an all-campus game in which he was the only faculty member.

January 25, 2012

I've often heard instructors at the copy machine or passing in the hallways refer to students as "zombies." I'm sure that I've referred to students as such. I've often felt like a zombie myself, lurching toward the end of the semester.  Perhaps fittingly then, there is a game on my campus that plays upon the current cultural popularity of zombies, and that last semester I was roped by several of my students into playing. “You’ll be the first professor to play,” they told me. The appeal worked, and I half-grudgingly agreed, thinking of it as an exercise in good PR for the benefit of my rapport with students.

Though I was initially a reluctant player, my participation in the game made me, in an admittedly strange way, feel welcomed by my students, and in a way that I can’t quite explain, made me feel more a part of the university community.

“Humans vs. Zombies,” or “HvZ” for short, is essentially a massive game of tag that takes place across campus and lasting about a week. My understanding is that the rules are somewhat flexible, so that games can be adapted to conditions unique to different campuses. Players wear a distinctive bandana, yellow on my campus. When the game begins, all players, with the exception of an initial "zombie," wear the bandanas on their left arm or leg, to indicate that they are "human." When a player becomes a zombie, they switch from wearing the bandana around their arm or leg to around their neck or head.

A human player is zombified, so to speak, when a zombie player tags them. However, on my campus academic buildings and residential halls are considered neutral zones, so players can really only be tagged when outdoors, moving between buildings. Humans can prevent a zombie from tagging them by throwing a pair of rolled up socks at the zombie, thereby stunning the undead for a set amount of time and allowing the human to make an escape (Nerf guns are used for this purpose on many campuses, but for some inexplicable reason are banned from my own campus). Zombies must "feed" by tagging a human every 24 hours, or the zombie expires and is out of the game. So, the game progresses as one of attrition between dwindling numbers of humans and an increasing but then also dwindling horde of zombies.

The game is also run through a website. Registered participants are given unique codes and are tracked, so that players can see who is a human, who is a zombie, and who has expired from the game. Periodically, humans and zombies are given "missions," such as signing in at a particular location, and the missions speed the progress of the game by forcing human players into contact with zombie players.

Frankly, the game initially felt like a burden, like another of the countless miscellaneous, distracting commitments feasting upon my own brains, the brains I need to complete my teaching and scholarly obligations. I played passively, just going about my business with the yellow arm band on. About three days into the game my participation had really only consisted of walking a little faster than usual between buildings, but then the remaining human players and I received a mission.  The mission was to get a picture of ourselves with an active zombie, but without getting tagged. I don’t know why, but I decided I had to make a good-faith effort to complete the mission.

I realized that I had a tremendous advantage in the game. Because academic buildings are "safe" zones, I essentially lived in a safe environment. I kept a keen lookout for zombies in my own academic building, hoping to get a picture of one within the safety of the building. Through a combination of guile and luck, I got the photo of an active zombie that I needed to complete my mission.

"Dammit!" the student muttered when I snapped the photo with my phone, "I knew there was a professor playing, but I didn’t know it was an English professor." I took his comment to mean that he would have proceeded with more caution in the building where the department of English is housed had he known that the professorial participant might be lurking in the English building.

Quite self-satisfied, I returned to my office and e-mailed in the photo, thereby completing my mission and staving off my own zombification. And then my office phone began to ring. The zombie horde had apparently been informed that the professorial participant was still human and active in the game, and was casing me, testing to see if I was still in my office, waiting for me to leave. The duped zombie/student had spread the word, and the larger zombie horde decided that the professor/human had evaded them for too long. I stopped answering my phone.

When I left work that day for the gym, I exited through a side door, generally used only by campus maintenance personnel. But then, later, as I was leaving the gym, I let my guard down, assuming that the late hour meant that the coast was clear. It was drizzling a cold October rain as I walked to my car with a friend.

Suddenly and out of nowhere, three students, none of whom I knew, were bearing down on me, sprinting and whooping and making zombie noises. And even though it was only a game, there’s something about having three men in their early 20s running at you full-tilt that is a little unnerving.

I abandoned the friend I was walking with without explanation and sprinted for the doors of my building. And I was caught just as I reached the door to pull it open. In my panic to escape I even forget to throw the balled up socks in my coat pocket to stun the zombies.

So there I am, standing in the cold rain, arms at my sides, swearing into the air at my defeat, a victim of my aged legs and my overcompetitive nature.  And what does this kid, this kid who has just hunted down a professor, chased me down the way a wolf might drag down a disease-addled stag, do? He hugged me. Honestly, I didn’t know what to say.  He wished me better luck next time, and the three left, reveling in their kill. I stood there stewing and stunned in the rain.

Then, last week, on the first day of classes, my students were introducing themselves to me and to one another. The typical sorts of introductions, their names, course of study, hometown, maybe mentioning a hobby or two.

During the introductions one student added after his name, "And I play HvZ."

"I played that last semester," I said.

"I know," the student said, staring at me, unblinking, the way a boxer might stare into his rival’s eyes before the opening bell.

I said nothing, and the other students continued with their introductions. But the dialogue in my head was different: All right kid, game on.


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