December 3, 2020

Why you shouldn’t play humans versus zombies

By Larry Busk and Mark McGinn, senior philosophy majors

Once every semester, students on Webster University’s campus brandish Nerf guns and adorn themselves with variously colored apparel for a bizarre and ritualistically organized role-playing game called “Human vs. Zombies” (HvZ). We are able to gather that its object is the “turning” of every “human” into a “zombie,” but its precise rules are unknown to us. This game goes on for an entire week. This game goes on unquestioned. We all love HvZ — and why shouldn’t we? Sure, the HvZ’ers do not confine their activities to planned and designated locations (as clubs are wont to do). They roam about the campus at random and oftentimes serve only to distract both players and spectators from their work. This is only a trifling matter, however.

There is nothing seriously wrong with HvZ; it is just a bit of harmless fun. This is what we are led to believe. But we are not convinced. No one seems to notice, or care, that this is functionally a children’s game — a slightly more sophisticated form of tag. It has absolutely no educational value, no social or political significance, no artfulness or creativity. It is, at base, a collegiate-level continuation of recess (which usually terminates after grade school). It also resembles something one would play at a summer camp. These chipper young lads and lasses remind us of “the good ol’ days,” before our innocence gave way to culpability, when the camp spirit of Lake Takanahoe reigned supreme. HvZ is indicative of our generation’s collective regression; it allows us to remain children indefinitely and to defer the momentous responsibilities of adulthood. Consider, also, how the “Humans vs. Zombies” scenario — a popular one today — is borrowed from video games and movies, which are themselves “virtual worlds,” simulations of real life.

As if the increasing immersion of our generation in this kind of media weren’t problem enough, now real life itself has become a video game. HvZ is an artificial copy of a video game world, which is itself an artificial copy of the real world. It represents a double transposition — from the real world to the cyber world and back again. It is a simulation of a simulation. The real world thus becomes layered over by the logic of the video game, which serves only to further obfuscate a reality already muddled by Facebook, advertising, and television. Nothing terrible ever happens in video games. One plays in an insulated world. Death is merely “game over,” and one can soon start again — no serious commitments required. HvZ is this insular world writ large.

Elsewhere, in the real world, real people hunt each other with real guns (just as in HvZ, because they are “the wrong kind”). But in our world — the video game comes to life, the never-ending summer camp — this is just a bit of role-playing fun pursued at our leisure. Disquieting realities are pushed out of focus in favor of a children’s game. The sharp but unintentional farce of HvZ is that it actually is turning humans into zombies. Of course, these kinds of reservations about the hidden motives and consequences of HvZ are immediately “refuted” with that inescapable retort: “Chill out, it’s just a game.” But it is not just a game. HvZ in and of itself may not be a grave concern. But the world which HvZ represents — the world of childhood and simulation, the only world where HvZ is possible — is a grave concern. We do not mean to suggest that HvZ — or the generally well-meaning people who play this game — are singularly responsible for some egregious offense. HvZ is only one representation of a much larger problem, one that concerns each of us.

What is of primary importance is not that we cease playing this silly game, but that we give ourselves to thought, and reflect on the possibility that we may be playing out, in disguised form, but one more part in the play of a widespread cultural regression, one that unwittingly refuses to face up to the unforgiving facts of contemporary life — war, poverty, gross inequality, untreated sickness and disease, and genocide (to name but a few). This is the world we live in and we should be wary of the pernicious worlds of childhood and simulation — lest we bury our heads in the sand. For those of us who still prefer to think critically about our surroundings, “Humans vs. Zombies” is every day of our lives. And we are losing.


For preview coverage of the fall 2012 HvZ game:
Dylan Schnitker:the double agent of Humans vs. Zombies
Nerf guns and socks: a history of Humans vs. Zombies
HvZ’s plot involves Stroble and Schuster
Tools of Trade: Weapons of HvZ
William Penn University gears up for first HvZ game

Share this post