How Humans vs Zombies Changed My Life

Apr 08, 2014
new paltz humans vs zombies 2014

Many of you probably don't know that my cowriter Wyatt was once my Composition 2 professor. It was well known back then that he offered extra credit to his students who played Humans vs Zombies, with the caveat that they write at least six pages about their experience. It was also pretty well known that no one ever did that assignment, including myself. This year, I felt it was appropriate to finally write the paper I meant to write two years ago. Brace yourselves, I'm about to get pretty personal with this one.

This weekend marked the end of my school's Humans vs Zombies weeklong game. It's almost surreal to think that I've been playing this game for almost three years now, and I owe a hell of a lot of who I am now to it. Nearly every friend I have on this campus I met through or because of HvZ (even Wyatt). When I started college, I was pretty socially awkward; in high school, I didn't have very many close friends. I didn't feel like I fit in anywhere: My interests were often too niche, nerdy, or different to share with others. I wasn't often trusted in leadership positions, and my self-esteem was in the gutter when it came to my creative skills. Three years later, I'm one of the many people responsible for one of the biggest and best clubs on this campus. This club is full of the most kind, unique, and amazing people I've ever met. Some of them just played their last weeklong as students on this campus, and I'm devastated to see them go.

This game and these people defined who I am these past three years, and I'd like to give you at least a taste of why running around campus with Nerf on my back means so much to me.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Humans vs Zombies is, at its core, a campus-wide game of tag with Nerf blasters. Humans are allowed to carry Nerf blasters and socks, and the zombies try to tag them without getting shot or sock'd. The game starts with mostly humans and one or two original zombies, and if all goes well, might end with a human or two limping across the finish line. With this simple setup (and a few rules for safety), what ensues is a week of organized chaos: ambushes, stakeouts, mad dashes across campus, and many a human going down in a blaze of glory.

This permeates all sorts of interesting encounters across campus, and it's hard to miss people with orange headbands running down students carrying brightly colored plastic toys. When you think about it, it's a really silly mental space to put yourself in: for a week, you train your mind to spot orange in a crowd and treat the outdoors as a war zone. This leads people to do things that are completely abnormal on any other week: it is suddenly socially acceptable for one stranger to chase down another stranger in an attempt to tag them, whilst also dodging foam projectiles.

To take it one step further: it is suddenly socially acceptable to learn a person's schedule, tell about fifty other people that schedule, then organize an ambush for that person. That's pretty powerful to me. When I first played HvZ, I died at 8:00AM Monday, leaving me to be a zombie the entire week. This taught me two lessons. Firstly, being a human until Friday was not the goal of the game. If it was, people would quit the second they got tagged. There would also be no reason to worry as a human if all the zombies just went home. What really makes this game is the constant tension between humans and zombies. This leads me to my second lesson: how every person wearing an orange band is your friend. That is how I met every single friend I made in that game. I saw someone wearing orange, I waved to them in the distance, and immediately started talking about the game. It is extremely difficult to be superficial and judgmental of others when they're comfortable enough with themselves to go to class in zombie makeup or covered in Nerf gear.

This game has never failed to attract interesting people. For a group of self-professed introverts and nerds, HvZ is full of the most outgoing people I know. I believe one of my friends said it best when he said it takes a special kind of person to run to class decked out in Nerf and not only be brave enough to do it in public, but to feel badass while doing so. HvZ players are often the most comfortable with themselves, because they care more about having fun than they do about looking cool to the outside world. Look at the photo below - people covered in zombie makeup, donning jerseys with silly nicknames, wearing cardboard boxes as costumes, and most importantly, having a good time.

New Paltz Humans vs Zombies - Zombie group photo

This is a tight group of people - only a small fraction of the 70+ zombies we had by finale. Spot the dork in the glasses on the right if you can.

I'm right now coming down off the high of this past weeklong from both a human and a moderator standpoint, and I can't help but appreciate the work everyone does while playing this game. Zombies form private Facebook groups to give intel on those who are still alive. Humans will often put their lives in danger in order to help friends across treacherous paths to class. There's a level of comradery with some of my friends only attained by some choice encounters we made with zombies together. The stupid, but invigorating, counter charges against the horde. The near misses as we escorted friends back to their dorms when it would have been fine to take ourselves out of play. The rush of adrenaline as we spend all seventy-five minutes of a class planning our escape routes and not paying attention. The same can be said for the zombie side: by the end of the week, we've all spent hours with each other making small talk, springing to action at the sight of orange, and testing our patience as we lie in wait for an ambush. Unlike the humans, who have reason to be paranoid of their soon-to-be-dead comrades, the zombies are constantly interacting on Facebook, meeting together, and organizing zombie training to share tactics. This creates a family who welcomes all willing to play: when I died on Friday, it had felt like I joined a tight network of friends - one that didn't exist four days prior.

That feeling of family only strengthened as we all gathered for finale - one last over the top mission to cap off the week. This time, more than any, there was a huge feeling of finality to it. It's kind of irrational - most of us are going to be here next year, and the ones graduating are still going to be around to play the game. Yet, this was the end to something big. Two hours of running around in the rain and mud until the sun went down. Nearly a hundred of us were out of breath, soaked, and cheering at the end - and while there wasn't a single human survivor, it still felt like we all fought for something and won. At the end of the day, HvZ isn't about winning, it's about gathering together and feeling part of something huge. It's about being persistent and contributing to a larger experience, and never giving up even when it might feel your contributions are small.

I didn't expect to find myself nearly a blubbering mess by the time I stepped into the shower after finale - and once again as I try to wrap up writing this. These people - especially the ones graduating this year - mean the whole world to me. In only three years, they were simultaneously my role models and best friends. I am who I am today because a group of strangers saw that I wanted to play a game and accepted me into it as I was. To some extent, we were all high school misfits, and now we're the largest group of best friends on campus.

I can proudly come out of this game saying I'm more confident and outgoing; the game gave us something to be excited about together and gave us challenges to overcome, real or not. We're still the same nerds we were when we started, but now we're proud to be who we are because we've proven to ourselves that it's fun. As my responsibilities start to shift from player to game moderator, my only hope is that we can continue to give players that same rush of excitement and pride.

Zoë Wolfe

Co-Founder, Webmaster