ON A THURSDAY MORNING LAST FALL, MAX TEMKIN STOOD IN HIS DORM ROOM at Goucher College and took inventory of his arsenal.
"This is the Nerf Maverick," he said, brandishing a bright blue-and-yellow plastic revolver. "It's reliable, the bread and butter of guns. It goes everywhere with me when I'm playing." He filled each of the gun's six chambers with a soft foam dart and fired at the wall opposite him. Some of the darts stuck to the wall; some bounced off and fell to the floor.
Next, he demonstrated the Nerf Atom Blaster, which shoots foam balls, and the Nerf Firefly, a contraption that emits a light flash each time it releases a dart. Last, he brought out his newest gun, the Nerf Longshot. "Other than the Maverick, this is probably the coolest gun ever made," he said. "This has a collapsing stock, bipeds so you can snipe with it and legitimate bolt action. I never had a toy this cool when I was a kid."
Temkin was dressed in a white Oxford shirt, a maroon necktie, gray sweater, jeans and black Chuck Taylor sneakers. At 21, he is baby-faced and boyish. The Longshot-- a three-foot-long Rube Goldberg marvel of fluorescent blue, yellow and orange hard-molded plastic -- looks nearly as tall as he is.
In all, Temkin owns 10 Nerf guns, but the Maverick and the Longshot (designed for ages 6 and up) were the two he planned to rely on when the game of Humans vs. Zombies began for the fifth time at Goucher, a small liberal arts college north of Baltimore. At its most basic, Humans vs. Zombies (also known as H v. Z, or Zombies) is an immersive game of tag based upon the archetypal zombie narrative: All players except for the "original zombie," or O.Z., begin the game as humans. The O.Z. feeds on the humans one by one, converting them to zombies who, in turn, "feed on" other humans by tagging them -- and must make a kill every 48 hours or starve to death. Meanwhile, the humans avoid being eaten by the zombies either by hiding -- holing up in their dorm rooms or sleeping in the library -- or stunning the zombies for 15 minutes with Nerf darts and balled-up sock "grenades." The game, which has fall and spring versions, is played all over campus 24 hours a day for days, and sometimes weeks, on end. It's over when all of the humans have perished or all of the zombies have starved.
The 2005 inaugural Zombies game drew about 70 Goucher students. Since then, as many as 200 have played, making it one of the most popular student activities -- even though it's not an official student activity -- among the school's roughly 1,500 students. The game has spread to other campuses, with thousands of students playing this month at Cornell University, Penn State University, Bowling Green State University and the University of Maryland, among others.
But as Zombies' popularity has grown, criticism of it has grown, too -- especially since last April, when a severely disturbed English major named Seung Hui Cho armed himself with two semiautomatic handguns and killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech University. In the immediate wake of that shooting, Humans vs. Zombies became controversial, raising a collegiate version of the prevailing question of our time: What is the balance between security and freedom? And it prompts another fascinating question: What can a group of young people learn about one another -- and themselves -- by running around campus with Nerf guns for days on end?
Temkin, a junior, is a philosophy major who likes nothing more than to chew on such issues. Two years after first playing the game, he's become one of its most vocal evangelists on campus, speaking out from the pages of the student newspaper. He writes with a fountain pen; he started Goucher's debate team. But on that Thursday morning last fall, he wasn't interested in ruminating; he was preparing for war. He had read How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Rommel's Infantry Attacks. He had a police scanner tuned to Goucher's security frequency. He had a dorm room chosen for its tactical advantages -- quick exit via two doors and the window (as long as he removed his air- conditioning unit, which he is not supposed to have). He had a pair of steel-toed "zombie-stomping boots" in the closet. And he had his new Nerf Longshot. "I really want to do well during this game," said Temkin, aiming at the wall and firing. "I've never had a stupid early death."
TEN DAYS LATER, JUST FOUR DAYS BEFORE HUMANS VS. ZOMBIES WAS TO BEGIN AT MIDNIGHT, 50 students waited in one of Goucher's residence hall lounges. When senior Chris Weed walked in just after 9 p.m., they chanted, "Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!"
In 2005, Weed and his then-roommate Brad Sappington invented Humans vs. Zombies to amuse themselves and their friends. When Sappington graduated in 2006, he left Weed as the unlikely figure at the center of the burgeoning Zombies phenomenon. Weed is tall and thin, with deep brown eyes and apple-red cheeks. At 22, he's a dreamer who speaks softly, gently and infrequently. In his fall semester philosophy class, he didn't participate once, while Temkin talked so often that on at least one occasion the professor sighed and said, "Let's hear from someone besides Max, please." But this night, in response to the crowd's chant, Weed yelled back, "You're all nerds!"
It was not an insult. At Goucher, which prides itself on encouraging students to be individuals, a label such as "nerd" is far less damaging than it would be elsewhere. And, anyway, what Weed really meant was, "We're all nerds." To play a game as immersive and fantastical as Zombies is to give oneself over completely and utterly, despite how silly it looks, despite what others might think. That is the definition of nerd.
After the initial frivolity, Weed and the other game organizers, who are known as moderators, or "mods," turned serious. They'd called this meeting to make sure each player had signed two legal forms instituted in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, and to emphasize the most important rules of the game: Don't shoot nonplayers; don't use or carry guns visibly in academic buildings; and don't use cars during game play. "No cars, no cars, no cars," Weed said, leaning heavily on that rule because in a previous game he'd had to kick out a player for using his car to avoid zombies. Weed warned the players that if they didn't comply with the rules, they would threaten the future of Zombies at Goucher. "We've had to deal with a lot of crap about people not liking the game," Weed said. "Some people are really angry about this."