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Commando Performance
As the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech rampage approaches, students all over the country are storming campuses with (toy) guns. What kind of game is this?

By Laura Wexler
Sunday, April 13, 2008

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."

Even before the Virginia Tech shooting, Goucher's associate dean of students, Emily Perl, said she had received at least a dozen oral and e-mail complaints about the game. On April 16 last year, as soon as she heard about the shooting at Virginia Tech, Perl called Temkin and told him to immediately halt the Zombies game that had been running for about a week. "We don't want students running around with guns today," Perl said she told him. "There was a heightened sense of fragility."

Ultimately, however, Goucher president Sanford Ungar allowed the game to continue after meeting with the Zombies organizers, who presented administrators with a gift-wrapped Nerf gun addressed to his or her "inner child." The gift of the toy guns was an attempt to reinforce the idea that Humans vs. Zombies is a game, rather than an "issue," said Temkin, who came up with the idea. Ungar saw his decision as part of a larger refusal to overreact to what he called the "horrific aberration" at Virginia Tech. As he wrote in Goucher's alumni quarterly last spring: "We will not sign on to trendy, but unproven, electronic alert systems . . . We will not engage in tawdry one-upsmanship to try to claim that we are safer-than-thou . . . And we will not seek to label as 'dangerous' every student who is merely different . . . We must make our decisions with an eye toward striking a delicate balance between security and personal freedom."

Even so, Goucher administrators wanted to provide everyone on campus the chance to voice their thoughts about the game. So Goucher's chaplain scheduled a highly structured public meeting on the eve of the fall games. That day, nearly 100 people crowded into a classroom to listen as Weed explained the game's ability to bring together disparate groups of kids and Temkin waxed poetic. "I know the Zombies game is a really weird, freaky thing," he said. "It's, like, not socially acceptable . . . But we're weird kids with weird pastimes, and we're part of a group. That's a really incredible feeling."

While the opponents acknowledged the game's benefits, they criticized its representation of killing and violence. Jenifer Jennings-Shaud, a member of the graduate education faculty, spoke of arriving on campus one evening and seeing a man with a gun run over the hill. "I was terrified," she said. "Guns scare me. Nerf guns, regular guns. All guns." Then she began to cry. English professor Jeff Myers raised questions about the ethics of "playing war" while an actual war is happening in Iraq. Peace studies instructor Fran Donelan theorized about the possible link between fantasy violence and actual violence. "There have been many studies done about how a society's games reflect the society," she said. "Most of the games in this country revolve around hunting people down and killing them."

A similar conversation -- or argument, in some cases -- continues at several campuses where the game is played. At Maryland and Bowling Green, letters in the student newspapers have criticized Zombies players for their insensitivity to the Virginia Tech victims. At Whitman College in Washington state, game administrators decided toy weapons were too sensitive on a college campus in light of the Virginia Tech shooting and banned Nerf guns during their fall game. Bowling Green will not use the guns this spring. At Butler University in Indiana, administrators have banned Zombies outright. "People are a little edgy," said Butler's dean of student life, Irene Stevens. "Given the Virginia Tech incident, we didn't feel it was appropriate for them to be going around campus 24/7 carrying toy guns." Perl continues to wonder whether she and the other administrators are doing right by allowing the game to continue. "My worst fear is that an outsider will walk onto campus and pull a real gun, not knowing the kids are using fake guns," she said.

When concerns about the game first surfaced last year, Weed took it personally. And even as he's come to understand that students running around on campus with weapons can scare some people, he stands fast in the belief that fear should not prevent fun. "Nerf guns are so innocuous," he said. "It's the symbolism of it that scares people. It's people letting fear run their lives."

Weed was 14 when the April 1999 Columbine High School shooting occurred. In the wake of the Colorado massacre, administrators at the private school Weed attended mandated that one door in each set of double doors be locked. "I guess it was to prevent a big group of armed people from coming through the door, but it was ridiculous," he said. "I think they realized they couldn't do anything, so it was a symbolic action to make parents feel better."

Temkin's public school instituted lockdown drills after Columbine, in which the students would turn off the lights and sit against the wall where the door was, so if a shooter looked through the window of the door, he'd think the classroom was empty. When Weed and Temkin recall these measures, it's almost as if they view the adults' attempts to ensure their total safety as naive, sensationalist and a bit silly -- even childish. They and the other moderators say they are unwilling to allow what they see as a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible event impinge on their personal freedom. "How has the Virginia Tech shooting affected me personally?" Temkin asked. "It's reduced my individual liberty as a student because of the reaction to it. I obviously think that school shootings are a tragedy . . . But I just don't see how they connect to our game of tag. Making that kind of connection is pure political correctness -- the elevation of feeling good over doing right."

Coincidentally, Goucher's spring 2008 game begins on April 16, the one-year anniversary of the rampage at Virginia Tech. Despite their rejection of a link between the game and campus violence, the organizers have decided to make the first day gun-free, out of deference to those who were killed.

AT APPROXIMATELY 10 A.M. ON OPENING GAME DAY LAST NOVEMBER, the first of 160 humans at Goucher perished when sophomore Erika Cardona rushed up to one of her friends saying, "Dude, I know who the O.Z. is!" When the guy said, "Who?" she said, "Me!" and tagged him. Then she took his ID number to record her kill at the Web site the mods had created.

Cardona had the most kills of any zombie during the previous spring's game, and she's a dedicated player, which is why the mods chose her to be the O.Z. (in general, women make up about one-third of the Zombies players). During two summers in high school, she participated in roving games of Capture the Flag on the streets of Manhattan, and she once attended a mass pillow fight in Union Square. "I realized early on that it was kind of important to have a sense of play outside work and schoolwork," said Cardona.

For the two nights before the game began, she dreamed of running around and tagging kids. "It's definitely taking me over," she said. After tagging her first victim, she continued to stalk the campus disguised as a human, with a blue bandanna on her leg and her Nerf Reactor in her hand.

A few hours later, the 15 or so humans holed up in Van Meter Hall, one of Goucher's main classroom buildings, checked the Web site and were alarmed to discover that the O.Z. had already recorded seven kills. It was only the first day of play, but these humans were already in full game mode. Sutton Ashby was dressed all in black, wearing leg and shoulder holsters that hold four of the seven guns he owns. (Because game rules state that weapons can't be visible in academic buildings, Ashby's guns were stowed in a plastic garbage bag next to his backpack.) He had his student ID card taped to his wrist so he could wave it in front of the card readers and quickly unlock doors. Jon Simon was wearing a black hunting vest and cargo pants, and he carried a mirror that he could extend around corners to spot zombies lying in wait. Peter Danilchuk had stocked up on granola, fruit bars, raisins and V-8 -- dining halls are not "safe zones," he said. All wore bandannas tied around their arms or legs that identified them as humans; if they got tagged and became zombies, they'd transfer the bandannas to their heads.

By 2:30 p.m. the next day, the human population was down from 150 to 100 and Van Meter was surrounded by zombies, including O.Z. Cardona, who was lying on her stomach outside the basement door, hoping to catch unsuspecting humans leaving class.

On the one hand, Cardona was feeling pretty good -- she'd bagged a record 18 kills the first day, and she was ready to devote her entire weekend to eradicating the human population. On the other hand, the humans who'd perished were the low-hanging fruit. She wanted Temkin and a few other key players, who were holed up inside Van Meter. Through the windows, Cardona saw them chatting and checking e-mail. "I don't want to move from here," she said after waiting 30 minutes in the November chill. "It's a hostage situation. We're psyching them out."

One of the human militia commanders, Boman Modine, a husky senior with a disheveled mop of curly hair and a penchant for fantasy games, came up with an escape plan for the 40-odd humans scattered throughout Van Meter. And although Temkin had reservations, he agreed to follow orders, because Modine was the ranking officer and Temkin is a firm believer in chain of command. According to the plan, all the freshman and inexperienced players would run out the front of Van Meter and draw the zombies' attention. The more experienced militia members would go out the back and take on the zombies there. Then the humans would reconvene in an open field behind the building.

On cue, a group of humans charged out the front door with their guns blazing, and Temkin and two others ran out the main back door. One of Temkin's comrades died before Modine arrived with backup, but it wasn't a bad showing, considering that the building was surrounded. The freshmen who ran out the front suffered no losses at all.

Modine split the humans into three platoons, with Temkin at the helm of one as they marched through the middle of campus. Later, Temkin would bask in the glory of that moment. "I commanded 40 people," he said. "I feel like I did something big."

Temkin has no military training and no plans to join the military. But he and the others marching with him seemed hungry for at least part of the soldier's experience -- the friendships forged under fire, the intensity of life-or-death situations, the chance to be tested. As one militia member said: "You get to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. You get to go blazing into a pack of people and save the day."

It's exactly this viewpoint that disturbs Myers, the English professor who spoke out during the community conversation. "I don't have anything specifically against the game as a game," he said. "What sort of troubled me was seeing young men walking around campus in camouflage and doing a kind of walk I would characterize as a swagger or aggressive pose. It's clearly role-playing, but, as Shakespeare would say, 'All the world's a stage.' So the roles say a lot about who people are. The game perhaps gives some insight into why war is so attractive to young men."

SEVERAL HOURS AFTER THE STANDOFF OUTSIDE VAN METER THAT FRIDAY AFTERNOON -- which was far from the bloodbath Cardona had hoped for -- Cardona and a pack of zombies had gathered on the hill next to the student parking lot, awaiting the humans, whom they'd learned were marching through the woods that ring Goucher's campus, headed their way. When the humans realized the zombies were lying in wait, Modine and fellow militia commander Matt Sabine huddled to decide whether the troops should press deeper into the woods or rush the zombies. The decision was to rush, so the humans made a quarter-turn and charged up the hill, shooting and yelling. In the ensuing melee all the zombies were stunned by Nerf darts before they could tag anyone, and the humans ran off to the safety of their dorm rooms.

"We didn't get anyone?" O.Z. Cardona said, her chest rising and falling from exertion. "We failed miserably."

A few hours later, the zombies attacked in Tuttle House, a dorm, but the humans commandeered the stairwells, knocking the zombies back every time they attempted to advance. After the 90-minute siege ended, Temkin and the other humans ordered Chinese food and asked the delivery guy to pass it through the window.

When Cardona finally went to bed at 3 a.m., she dreamt of zombies for the third night in a row.

By 4 p.m. Saturday, half the humans had perished, tagged here and there on the way to class or to a friend's dorm or to the bathroom. But Temkin remained at large. He was due any moment to return from a field trip, and the zombies had gathered at Van Meter to ambush him as he stepped off the bus. "I want Max to die so bad," said Cardona.

Suddenly Cardona yelled, "There's the bus!" But instead of coming toward Van Meter, the bus was traveling along the opposite side of campus to the student parking lot where the melee had occurred the night before. Cardona and the rest of the horde raced off in that direction, running past a group of perplexed groomsmen and bridesmaids gathered outside the chapel. But before she and her crew reached the edge of campus, a zombie who was on the bus with Temkin ran up to them and said, "Max got in his car and went off campus" -- which could be a violation of the game rules.

Weed, who had come out from his dorm room to watch what he supposed would be Temkin's demise, called Temkin on his cellphone. "Are you in the car?" Weed asked. When Temkin said yes, Weed said, "We have to talk about this."

The previous night, during the march through the woods, Weed had gazed at the dancing and singing humans and said, "I could die a happy man right now." But now, Weed was quietly and powerfully angry. Weed's phone kept ringing -- Temkin calling back -- but he didn't answer it. He wanted to delay the possibility of having to eject Temkin, the game's most ardent fan and most recognizable spokesman, for breaking one of the key rules of the game: Don't use your car to escape zombies.

A half-hour later, Cardona raced up the stairs in Tuttle House to discover the glass in the fire extinguisher case had been shattered: A zombie collided with it in the heat of battle. He suffered only a minor cut, but the word went out that someone was hurt, and Temkin, parking his car, heard and rushed to Tuttle. As he entered the building, his defenses down, a freshman zombie simply reached out and tagged him, and that was the end of Temkin's career as a human.

Later, Temkin explained that he'd worried during the entire field trip until he got the idea to ask the bus driver to switch the drop-off spot. When he stepped off the bus at the student parking lot, he shot one zombie to stun her then told the other zombie who'd been on the bus: "I'm leaving. Do you want to fight me?" After that zombie walked away, Temkin got into his car and drove to the store on an errand.

"If I had known people were coming toward me, I wouldn't have gotten in the car," he said. "I would have died."

Though some players believed him, some didn't, and their doubt would leave Temkin torn and troubled -- and uncharacteristically tongue-tied -- for weeks afterward. In the meantime, he checked the Web site. The tally stood at 86 zombies, 64 humans. He took a shower, changed his clothes and ran around with the zombies until 2 a.m.

BY SUNDAY AFTERNOON, CARDONA HAD LOGGED 23 KILLS AND AT LEAST ONE IMPORTANT ASSIST: She helped kill Modine. She hadn't slept much, and every few minutes a zombie called to report information (or rumors) and ask her what to do. "It's a little exhausting," she said. "I'm not schooled in military strategy like some of the guys. I don't prepare for this game like they do."

Later, as the zombies were walking en masse toward the residential quad, Modine got a call on his cellphone. He hung up, then quieted the crowd before issuing a proclamation. "Jonathan Suss just killed Matt Sabine!"

The crowd chanted, "Suss! Suss! Suss!" Even on a campus full of eccentric students, Suss, a freshman, stands out. He is the polar opposite of senior Sabine, a militia commander Temkin describes as "an alpha nerd."

When someone asked how Suss made his glorious kill, Modine replied: "He was waiting in the shower stall in the bathroom for eight hours. He tagged Sabine on his way out of the bathroom."

Fueled by the news that one of their weakest players had killed one of the strongest human players, the zombies prepared to charge the 20 or so remaining humans, who were gathered on the stone patio outside at the student center. After the zombies' initial rush, only four humans were left standing. Then the zombies charged again, and just one human remained.

Even though a few more humans were hiding in their dorm rooms, the game felt effectively finished: The zombies won. Emotions had run high and low. Alliances had been made and broken. People had revealed themselves to one another more fully in the previous few days than in a semester or year of sitting next to one another in a class.

Everyone was tired. Everyone was hungry. Everyone had homework to do.

In the days afterward, as players caught up on sleep and ate their first full meals in a while, Weed and the other mods pledged to create a centralized Web site that would make it easy for anyone anywhere to start a game of Humans vs. Zombies. They considered forming a limited liability company and incorporating new technology to make the game more immersive. And Weed daydreamed of buying a van and driving from campus to campus, an itinerant preacher spreading the gospel of Zombies to young people everywhere.

"We're never truly safe," he'd tell them. "And since we're not safe, let's have fun."

Laura Wexler is the author of Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America and a writer in Baltimore. She can be reached at laura@laurawexler.com. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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