Post Magazine: Commando Performance
(Toy) Guns on Campus

Laura Wexler
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, April 14, 2008 12:00 PM

As the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech rampage approaches, thousands of college students across the country are engaged in an immersive fantasy game that involves camouflage, mock killing -- and zombies. Why?

Author Laura Wexler was online Monday, April 14 to discuss her Washington Post Magazine story, 'Commando Performance.'

Laura Wexler is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America (Scribner, 2003). She lives in Baltimore.

A transcript follows.


Laura Wexler: Hi, This is Laura Wexler. I'm looking forward to a lively chat --both about the issues Humans vs. Zombies raises in today's particular climate, and about the game itself--the creativity and imagination it requires and engenders.


Fairfax: As a Hokie grad, I must say I could have dealt without the repeated references to Virginia Tech in this article. It's a silly little game, and anyone trying to draw comparisons to an actual tragedy needs to have their head examined. I'm sick of "but what about Virginia Tech" being the response to any petty little debate about guns -- especially one as stupid as this. We played a similar game with water balloons when I was at VT. These are NERF GUNS. Good lord, some people really need to reflect on their priorities. There are far better things to protest than this if you want the VT tragedy to actually mean something and do some good.

Laura Wexler: Thanks for your comment. I think your response echoes what I heard from a lot of the Zombies organizers at various colleges and universities. I guess the point is that this game is occurring at a particular cultural and historical moment--a moment in the wake of several university shootings--and there is, as a result, a heightened sensitivity and fear, and desire to prevent such occurrences. The reaction may not be completely rational, but it is understandable perhaps.


Arlington, Va.: Did you speak with any students who were not participating in the game? I would have been really annoyed having people running around throwing socks and Nerf projectiles while I was trying to go to class or get out of my dorm.

Laura Wexler: I remember when I was covering the game that someone who was NOT playing, but happened to be wearing a scarf that resembled the bandannas that the zombies wear, got tagged and she spilled her coffee all over herself and she was REALLY annoyed. Who wouldn't be? But, yes, some of the students who don't play do find the game distracting or intrusive. Others have reactions that are more the eye-rolling type, i.e. "What are these nerds doing?"


Washington, D.C.: The game sounded like a heck of a lot of fun to me (whatever girly-men English professors might think about young men and women releasing their inner warrior) but how do they manage to do well in their classes when for a lengthy period of time they are either playing the game or recovering from it? Has the administration tried to measure the academic performance of the players?

Laura Wexler: Since the game started, the moderators have made some changes so that it runs for a shorter time, but more intensely. So the game at Goucher really ran about 4 days. I got the impression most players didn't get much work done, but that they were able to recover pretty quickly afterward and get back on track. At one of the meetings I attended about H v Z, one guy said he got a lot of studying done during the game b/c he would be holed up in the library or a classroom building, waiting out the Zombies. One guy even said that, thanks to the game, he smoked less (too risky to be outside)!


23112: Sounds like a fun game. I knew without a doubt the kind of liberal hand-wringing commentary that it was going to elicit...I started playing paintball in college (over 15 years ago) and have heard the refrain time and time again. I even had someone accuse me of being a psycho at my wedding reception when paintball (for some reason) was mentioned. I never let it affect me, but luckily, I also was never in a position where our campus administration could clamp down and say "No, no, you could be learning the wrong life lessons." What I wonder is whether or not the people troubled by this game would be similarly alarmed if, say, the players were using tennis balls or stickers or silly string?

Laura Wexler: No, I don't think there would be quite the reaction if the players used tennis balls or--as in the case at some schools--balled up socks.

The thing is, the Nerf guns make it more real for the players, i.e. they can immerse themselves more fully with the guns. But they also make it more real for non-players, i.e. it looks more like real killing, real war.


Boston: I'm 24 and recently out of college, and your piece really struck a chord with me. Zombies are a big thing with kids my age. I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it does have to do with the idea that we're 'safety-ing ourselves to death.' There is the old cliche that modern life makes us all zombies, but all zombie movies seem to involve a mass uprising, and for a generation of overprotected, overambitious, oversecure kids perhaps the current update to that is the lure of overthrowing the current power structure and really being able to run amok. It did bother me that so few of the kids participating in the college Zombie games were quoted as examining the allure the games hold. It does seem that the games' appeal as mock-war isn't really thought through by the people playing it. In my opinion, the parallel here wouldn't be the events at Virginia Tech, but rather the war in Iraq - and it is interesting that what gets glorified is the strategy of storming a dorm/village and staking out other players, in one case for 8+ hours. I'd say there are a lot of issues here that could stand to be revisited.

Laura Wexler: I agree--it's a rich subject. In reporting this article, I watched A LOT of Zombies movies and I thought a lot about why, as you say, Zombies are so "hot" right now. Some of the folks in the article had really articulate theories on what Zombies, as the monster of choice for this generation, can tell us about our fears right now, i.e. fear of a mass of people who are driven not by morality or ethics, but by a blind need to kill...Some felt Zombies can be seen as stand-ins for terrorists.

I would have loved to discuss that at length, but alas: no room!


Ballston, Va.: Very entertaining article! My 13-year old enjoyed reading it, and is currently thinking of how this can be simplified/modified for recess or after school. I haven't seen him so inspired! If anything, it has given him a reason to look forward to college

Laura Wexler: That's great. I really heard from a lot of the players that this game offered them an instant community. Even at a small college, that's a huge benefit.


Arlington, Va.: Dear Ms. Wexler -

Thanks for this article. This game, however, is nothing new, and appears to be a variation of something we played back in the '80s. Actually, H vs Z seems LESS violent than Assassins, in that the only way for a player to 'die' is for a zombie to starve to death. Even the weapons don't kill, only stun. In the version I played, once you were 'killed,' you were out of the game.

Laura Wexler: Right. You and others have correctly suggested that this kind of immersive game isn't new--I only wish I'd had the space to discuss Assassins and other games.

And the fact that when you're "eaten" by a Zombie, you then become a Zombie and continue playing is probably one of the game's best point. There really are no losers.


Annandale, Va.: We used to play a more bland version of this game during my time in high school back in the 80's. And I'm sure others participated in similar games before me. I really don't think there is anything wrong with it, really. Opponents should realize the problem is not in the 'guns' or the appearance thereof, but rather with the problems and warning signs leading up to someone choosing to use real guns. I mean, isn't this game really just Cowboys and Indians 8.0?

Laura Wexler: Interesting question. Yes, at heart this is a game of tag...with an elaborate narrative framing it.

And your point that the game doesn't cause campus shootings is something the players say again and again. But it's hard to argue against the powerful symbolism of guns--even toy guns--on campus right now.


seriously: What are these kids' majors?

I honestly never had time for such a game in college.

We used to call them business majors when we were busy studying, what do they call them now, "communications majors"?

Someone with this much free time during the school year needs to ask if such an unrigorous academic program will provide for them financially and intellectually after they graduate.

Sounds more fitting to the academic time demands and maturity level of high schoolers.

Laura Wexler: I hear what you're saying, but I would also argue that there is a lot of worth in the playing of this game. The creation of it is an extraordinary act of storytelling and imagination. And the players really use their minds and instincts and bodies to play--they strategize and learn how to work with each other and learn to deal with stress. Seems like a lot of life skills to me.


Healdsburg, Calif.: I'm puzzled about some of the rules. For example, if each zombie wears a bandanna on their head, how was the O.Z. able to just tag the first human player without being identified? Could you please provide a link to a site where the rules are posted?

Thanks for a fascinating piece -

Laura Wexler: The O.Z. is allowed to go without a bandanna on the first day in order to allow him/her to make some kills and get the game rolling.

The link to the game rules is here:

There are a set of core rules and then each school can modify them.


18104: I was reading your article and you seem to focus a lot on this student, Max Temkin. I was wondering, of all the students (and even the moderators), why did you choose to concentrate on him?

Laura Wexler: Good question. Mostly it was due to a writerly need to have a "main character" or a "point of view character" in the piece whom readers can follow along. Max was perfect in that he had high hopes for the game and was really committed to it. And he also was extremely articulate about what the game's appeals were--something I saw from the first time I heard him speak. When he faced the conflict about his decision to use his car, that only enriched him as a character, I believed.

But in a way, I see Chris Weed as the soul of the piece--that's why I ended with him.


Richmond: We used to play games like this, we called it SPY. I think the only difference is this sort of organized plan extending into college age, a symptom of the increasing age of emotional/economic maturity.

Laura Wexler: It's interesting--this idea of the importance of play was something I really heard from the college students I interviewed. It's as though they feel like everything is very serious and fearful in today's world, and they want the chance to be kids again--or, rather, they don't see play as something only kids do. They think adults should do it, too.

I have to say it's a point of view I'm fascinated by. When I was in college, I wanted more than anything to be adult. But now I really see the value of what they're saying.


Just out of college: What a fun sounding game! Too bad there's not a way for grown-ups in suburbia to play.

Laura Wexler: Why couldn't there be?


Towson, Md.: Hey Laura,

I loved the article, and I think you really captured the essential experience of the Zombie game.

My question is: If you were a college student today, and the zombie game was played at your school, would you join?

- Max Temkin

Laura Wexler: I think I would be very tempted to join in...the group dynamic and the whole story aspect of it appeals to me. I would probably enjoy being a zombie more than being a human, though!


N.Y.C.: There are those who play the game, and a few (it seemed) voices who oppose it. Did you get a sense of any consensus from the students and faculty at large? Do most think it's harmless fun? Do they sympathize with the objectors but err on the side of the students' freedom to play?

Laura Wexler: I think many people, like with anything, don't have strong feelings about it either way. However, this game definitely touches a nerve with a good many others, judging from the lively debates in several campus newspapers. People have strong feelings in favor, and strong feelings against. The game sparks powerful feelings, I think.


N.Y.C.: How many hours a day and how many days did you spend on campus? Did seeing the game up close leave with a different impression than you had going in? Did it confirm some of your assumptions?

Laura Wexler: Yikes, I was there for eight hours at time at some stretches over the course of a week or two. Both myself and the Post photographer ran around with the players on missions and hid out with them, etc. So I feel like I really got a feel for what playing the game is like.

I guess the thing that I saw that maybe I hadn't expected to was just how different students experienced the game. In other words, it's just such an intense atmosphere, and it really reveals people--their fears, their strengths, their ability to get along with others, etc. That's why I wrote that line at the end of the piece to the effect of people revealing themselves more fully to each other in a few days of gameplay than in an entire semester.


Arlington Va.: What prompted you to write this story? And how did you hear of the Goucher H vs Z group?

I enjoyed it, and would like to see more such 'cultural' pieces in the Magazine.

Laura Wexler: I teach in the MFA program in Nonfiction writing at Goucher, and as faculty, I receive an email digest about events on campus. One such email publicized the meeting last fall at which folks could air their feelings about Humans vs. Zombies. I had never heard of it before and was intrigued, so I went to the meeting. After that, I was hooked!


18104: A follow-up to my question:

How long after he was "killed" did Max Temkin play as a zombie for?

Laura Wexler: This is a bit of tricky question, as the issue of the car complicated things, as well as the issue of the shattered fire extinguisher. Within a day of being tagged, Max Temkin was no longer actually playing as a Zombie, but was serving more in a moderator role.


Are the people quoted: about toys and games (or crying when they see nerf guns) that serious ? I just find it incredible that folks get that bent out of shape over a game with next to zero violent overtones. I'd lump them into the inane groups that want to ban any competitive game among kids (tag, dodgeball, "war" the card game, etc)

Laura Wexler: I just think guns are a powerful symbol--even when they're brightly colored toy guns--and they engender powerful reactions in people.


they don't see play as something only kids do. They think adults should do it, too. : but is it optimistic or pessimistic? Like, "the economy is in the tank, I have no future, I might as well play zombie."

Laura Wexler: Hmmm. Good question. My feeling is that college kids today--who were adolescents when Columbine happened and still pretty young when 9/11 happened--have a greater sense of uncertainty and perhaps even mortality, at least I hear more of that in them than I felt at their age. I think about Chris Weed saying, "We're never truly safe, so let's have fun." In other words, fear is a part of their lives. But they don't want it to limit their freedom...or their fun.


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,

Is the game honing skills for the real zombie attack or is the game a plot to make humans more complacent?

Laura Wexler: There is definitely something apocalyptic about the game--I mean, it really is a survival game. So there is something half-serious, half-real about the way the players stockpile food and study survival tactics and run around in the woods. Maybe they are in some way preparing for the possibility of a time when the government breaks down and can't protect them and they're on their own, ala Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.


Elkridge, Md.: Ms. Wexler, I think your comments about students revealing more about themselves during the game days than in an entire semester are spot-on. This is one of the reasons (besides the obvious ones) golf is so popular in corporate America. You can learn a lot about a prospective employee or business partner by how they conduct themselves on the links.

Laura Wexler: Hah! I never would have thought that about golf, but it makes sense. When you play something immersive, you're acting on basic instincts without second-guessing yourself. It can lead to a lot of nakedness (metaphorically speaking, of course!)


they don't see play as something only kids do. They think adults should do it, too. : Their play is more self-centered than previous generations that age. It's about me against the world for them, whereas older college students played team-focused sports on intramural teams, etc.

Laura Wexler: But actually Humans vs. Zombies is a team game--the humans have to work together to survive, and the zombies have to work together to feed and stay alive. That's one of the things players like best about it: it throws together lots of different kinds of people who may never cross paths.


18104: Was there a definitive battle that you would say characterized the game?

Laura Wexler: Not so much...for me, what characterized the game was the commitment of the players (which some might call craziness). The various uniforms (holsters, ammo vests, etc.), the long hours, the days without a real meal b/c the dining hall is not a "safe zone." That kind of thing.


One question:: Do the humans EVER win? Sounds like it's a lot harder for them to!

Laura Wexler: They do win, though less commonly than the zombies. They win by basically causing the zombies to starve (after 48 hours, a zombie dies if he/she hasn't "fed" on human brains).


Silver Spring, Md.: Re: the above post from Boston - I really don't think you're a "kid" at 24, are you? I think that's part of our/the problem - no one wants to grow up these days. When are today's college and post college graduates going to decide to grow up? When they're 50?

Laura Wexler: I guess the point the players are making is that "growing up" shouldn't mean that play is no longer part of one's life.


Laura Wexler: Thanks for all the great questions. I enjoyed it.


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