Sunday, April 10, 2011

We Don't Want Zombies On Our Lawn

Except we actually do. 

At least, we do when it's Humans vs. Zombies time. 

Because it is indeed that time, when I was assigned to write a paper in the style of Roland Barthes' Mythologies , I knew exactly what I was going to write about. HVZ is pretty analyzable. 

Humans vs. Zombies is a current manifestation of the extravagant. College students take the roles of those classic B-movie monsters, the zombies. Instead of shuffling around with decaying bodies, they are hale and whole except for one marring mark-- a bright orange bandana around their forehead branded with their not-so-scarlet scarlet letter, the word “ZOMBIE” marked out in blocky capitals. Other students are the survivors, the humans left alive during the apocalypse. They have the same defining mark as the zombies, but the bandana is wrapped around their arm. They have the disease; it is only time until they succumb to it. But until a human is turned into a zombie, the symbol of potential enmity is safely tied to their arm, in their sight. The disease is controlled. The humans band together to prevent themselves from the enemy.

The Humans vs. Zombies website, where individual schools can coordinate their games, shows the trademarks of a horror movie. The color scheme is red, black, and white.  The background of the site looks like a blank white infected with black cracks, as if the darkness seeps into the internet. In the same way as the website looks cracked, playing Human vs. Zombies brings with it the feeling of a horror movie worming through the cracks in real life. Students rush from class to class with Nerf guns in hand, peeking barrel-first into every hallway and around every corner. They outfit themselves with Nerf brand tactical vests, or holsters cobbled together from guitar straps or ribbon. College becomes, for a little over a week, a war zone.

The website advertises the game as something serious in its campyness. The guns are bright orange plastic and the zombies carry their sketchbooks and weekly planners to class. But students enjoy taking the silly seriously. Because zombies will never become a real threat, they are one on which students can unleash their determination and intelligence. Maybe their anger as well, but that isn’t the primary emotion seen when groups of humans gather to talk about tactics or to survive the race from one academic building to another. Instead, they band together even if they never met before in their lives. The orange bandana becomes a sign of community through mutual outcast-ness.Players are viewed with disdain, curiosity, or annoyance by the non-playing population of the campus, but that only illustrates the subtler way cliques work every day. Now, the outsiders have a common enemy, and something that is commonly accepted as “cool”-- survival. At the same time, it is commonly accepted as fun. The very concept of seriousness is undermined.

Especially today it may be disturbing to think that the graduating populace hides an intrinsic need for war. I postulate that it is not death that the students want, but rather the appearance of death. Those who are “killed” become “zombies”, all false and in quote marks, but all also legitimate social distinctions which are acted upon for the duration of the game. A human does not fear “death” because he will be reborn as a zombie, the “undead”--the one who has escaped death. It is a victory unto itself, and some students celebrate it. Those who fear it, though, truly fear two things: change and parasitism.

If the fake zombies do not tag a human every 48 hours (thusly turning that human into a zombie) they will “starve”. They will be out of the game. Therefore, the goal of the zombie is to find as many humans as possible. He is dependent on them, waiting for them when they get out of class or when they leave their dorm buildings. Without humans there could be no zombies, and so zombies are parasites.

College, however, is intended to train people in being independent. It aims to prepare the graduate for a career in which they will separate from their friends and their families to have their own property and career. The zombie, though, cannot stake out his own property. He must always be moving, dependent on the population around him for his food. The student rebels against the idea of dependency because it implies returning to childhood, when the child subsisted off of his parents’ food and property. 

  The force of change is a resistance against parasitism, so that humans become fearful both of zombification and of their own conflicting feelings toward it. Change for college students prompts a look forward to graduation. Their college personalities must be “killed” at graduation so that they can change into an adult form. Zombies represent a dark mirror image of that adult form because of their parasitism, but it is also an appealing one. Zombies have freedom. They no longer need to be fearful of the people around them on campus. Humans cannot kill zombies, but can only stun them so that they need to stay still for a few minutes. They can try to pause the onset of change, but it is only postponed. Such a small time of immobility is no deterrent to a creature used to change, but it is a further example of the detractors of parasitism. The humans are like parents, ‘grounding’ the zombie for a set amount of time because of what he has done wrong. 

Humans vs. Zombies also came about from the closed nature of college campuses. Instead of rebelling against being placed between physical boundaries, the game embraces them. Playing outside campus boundaries is not allowed, and nor are humans allowed to leave campus for more than twenty-four hours. Depending on the moderators of the game, a human who leaves campus for longer than this period may either become a zombie, or be banned from the game entirely, adopting a no-identity which is different from that of a non-player. He is then something between human and zombie, having escaped the system but found that his identity is annulled outside it. 

The institution of campus as boundary is a practical one, but also a sign of the students accepting their own situation. It is at heart an optimistic game, with players intoning to themselves as they spring through the darkness that we are besieged (and have besieged ourselves on purpose); we are trapped; we are surrounded by the once-alive-now-undead, and we will have fun fighting them. The game started as a way to entertain students, and also to play with the concept of boundaries. Once the game starts, campus for the player is no longer just a place to reside. It is a war zone; it sets off adrenaline and endorphins. After the game, campus is seen in a different light. A bush is no longer a bush; it’s a hiding place. A stranger is no longer a stranger; he’s the one who told you there were zombies lurking behind the bush. People and places gain interconnectedness that they did not possess before. Therefore, synapses grow in a different way from the way they grow when a student is in class. 

The underlying significance of Humans vs. Zombies is to deconstruct the institute of learning, and to emphasizes the difference between students and graduates, or students who play and those who do not. It satisfies students’ needs for mythology just as it has its own created around it. 


  1. Mm, this is pretty thought-provoking actually. I think the game does say a lot about the mentalities of college students. The part about latent violent tendencies is kind of chilling. I don't know if I'm entirely comfortable with a sizeable portion of a student body playing war games.

    I wonder if you're on to something with the rather unusual nearly universal appeal of zombies--it is a form of immortality, and in today's society where religion and belief in things unproven by science is increasingly looked down upon, I think many young people who lack spirituality may look to being a zombie as the only form of "immortality" they can hope to achieve--even if the concept of zombies is even more theoretical than the concept of the immortality of humanity. It also seems to say something about hidden aggressive, predatory, vengeful, and/or other psychopathic tendencies that allows people to empathize and identify with zombies, or the zombies' human antagonists (because apparently blowing other people's heads off is justifiable and morally okay if said people are zombies).

    In summation: I would find the running-around-campus part fun. The rest of it, not so much.

  2. I've talked to other students who said they disliked the war or gun aspect, and honestly I disagree. At its core, HVZ is about fake war. It's about people wanting war without death. War without long-term consequences-- or death without long-term consequences. I don't think it portrays latent violent attitudes. Latent aggressive or adventurous attitudes, maybe, but those are more childlike than warriorlike. I don't think there's any way to tell whether any of the participants would be more or less suited to real war. None of them who I spoke to were in the military. Plenty, though, like war video games. The artificiality (there's that word again) is key.

    Certainly is an inverted exploration of immortality. Glad you liked it.

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