Pandemonium on the quad. Shouts. Screams. Just a tiny sprinkle of brains. Is it a bird? Or perhaps a plane? No, it’s Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ), the University of Chicago’s quarterly live-action role-playing tag game, which took place between April 5 and April 12 this spring and featured 174 total players. Open to all affiliated with the University, the game recruits intrepid human players who face off against their fearsome foes, the zombies. During the game, the main goal for the zombies is to “turn” the humans into zombies by tagging them. The goal for the humans is to survive by any means possible.
Registration for HvZ this year began on Tuesday, April 5 at 8:15 p.m. in Hutchinson Commons. Traditionally, registration marks the beginning of the game — as soon as a registered player steps outside of Hutch, they run the risk of being tagged and “turned” into a zombie — and it is an impressive event in and of itself. As Hutch is closed to accommodate the 200 or so prospective players as well as the HvZ moderators (affectionately referred to as “the mods”), the space is converted into something resembling a surrealist blackbox theater. Walking through the doors marked “HvZ registration,” one gets the sense they’ve stumbled into a cosplay conference, or perhaps a laser tag game.
The sheer range of players’ styles is mind-boggling. Some have put on the full get-up: makeup, gear, big Nerf guns. Some have shown up in their daily jeans and coats. Others, thinking tactically, have donned workout clothes and sneakers. The registration line snakes across the main dining room tables, nearly long enough to reach the doors. The air crackles with electricity. For the last two years, in-person HvZ was put on hold due to COVID-19. For most of the players, and a few of the mods, HvZ will be an entirely new experience this year.
Registration costs $3 and renting an optional Nerf gun costs $10. As the players register, neon green bandanas are put onto their arms, signaling their official status as human players in the game. When they’re “turned,” the players must switch the bandanas to their foreheads.
A slightly trigger-happy human player strides about holding a Nerf gun outfitted with a flashlight, shooting foam bullets at the walls of Hutch. Someone with a huge Nerf gun waves me down at the nearest table to brag about how she bought it for a dollar at the flea market. “I’m hoping to nail some zombies out there,” she said. I ask another player whether or not HvZ has a cult following, and he tells me that he’s a fourth-year now and has been participating since his first year: “It’s not as big as Scav, but it has the [same] kind of cult following,” he said. Those waiting in the registration line tell me that in years past, there have been people who — in true apocalyptic fashion — stopped going to class during the event to minimize their time outdoors.
I hear through the grapevine that both the zombies and the humans have their own Discord channels, and that individual text group chats have also spawned on a group-by-group basis. In the spirit of discovery, I ask around for specific strategies to use during the event and receive only vague shrugs and shifty eyes. The game gets brutal as valuable intelligence from both sides trickles down from friend-group to friend-group — as an outsider, I clearly cannot be trusted.
Later, though, I am granted an audience with HvZ President Noah Klowden, who is presiding over the registration desk with competent hyperactiveness, directing new players this way and that.
“Hello!” he calls out to a wandering player. “Are you here to register?”
As I pull up a chair next to Klowden’s spot at the registration desk, we’re frequently interrupted by registering players and nervous newbies asking about the rules. Someone walks up to us, “Are Rifle Blasters allowed?” he asks. A Rifle Blaster, if you don’t know, is the name of a specific model of Nerf gun: a small break-open, pump-action blaster featuring a single barrel and a removable scope. Klowden provides the answer after checking the official HvZ website: only the flywheel system blasters are banned; all other models are technically fair game. The Nerf Connoisseur walks off, scheming.
The game has officially begun.
The rules of HvZ are deceptively simple: the game starts with only one zombie player (the “lead zombie”). Once the game officially begins, human players use either balled-up socks (clean ones!) or Nerf guns to defend themselves from attacking zombies. Human players can stun for 5 minutes with one sock or bullet hit (the honor system). With the exception of certain special events, zombies are unarmed. However, the game is limited within certain areas: indoor buildings such as dorms and other educational, dining, and administrative buildings are all non-game “safe zones.” The great outdoors, on the other hand, is the wild west; ambush is fair game, and anarchy prevails.
Every year, HvZ has a different theme. This year, it’s “magical-apocalyptic.” According to the HvZ website, the “plot” of the spring 2022 game reads as follows: “In a magical world not too unlike our own, society descends into an apocalyptic hellscape. A powerful necromancer emerges, raising an army of sentient undead soldiers! This zombie army is fully devoted to their leader — he gave them all a second shot at life and a high-ranking job in the undead army corps! The zombies may be hard at work helping the necromancer craft his newest spells for world domination, but squads of human survivors roam the earth hunting down the undead hordes while their own numbers dwindle…”
After a week of busting brains and draining skulls, HvZ culminates in an event called “extraction,” which is held from 5:50–6:00 p.m. on the final day of the game. Extraction is a fast-paced, final push of the surviving humans to the center of the main quad, the “safe zone,” after which the game ends and the safe-zoned humans are declared the winners of the game, earning glory and bragging rights forevermore. Last year, around 20 human players survived extraction, but the circumstances of each game are different, and infection rates are as fickle as the wind.
Apart from the main game, HvZ also offers optional side higher risk missions, which rack up points for players who choose to participate in them.
“Each mission is meant to have a reward for either side if they win. For humans, this can be an extended timer. But to earn this award, players have to complete the mission. Points are designed as a way to encourage players to put themselves at risk and have something game-related to do before extraction.” Klowden said.
These game mechanics encourage team coordination and more active playing from both sides.
After he runs through the rules, I ask Klowden my burning question: Why HvZ?
It’s fun, high-energy, raw, and a pretty good distraction from your daily 100 pages of reading, but most of all, as Klowden told me, the event is communal. “It’s a weird thing that mainly exists on college campuses and it can be massive. It gives you an opportunity to be able to do something unlike anything you’d get to do normally.”
HvZ and Me
Klowden is right.
Even for me, a non-playing observer, HvZ is unlike anything I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of. Throughout the week, I become…slightly obsessed with HvZ.
HvZ as a game. HvZ as a concept. HvZ as a lifestyle.
12:12 p.m., Wednesday April 6: I am in class and intermittently sneaking looks at the UChicago HvZ website, whose meticulous analytics tell me that eight percent of players (nine people) are zombies, while the humans are sticking it out at an impressive 92 percent of total players (102 people). Throughout the week, I see their numbers steadily decline. The “Human Survival” chart plunges and plateaus, plunges and plateaus.
At dinner, Friday April 8: I am wondering how the humans will proceed this year at extraction.
The strategies of extraction are varied: some are tactically genius, others are as dumb as the day is long. There’s guerilla warfare, plots, schemes, and false intelligence. Seasoned HvZ player and linguistics professor Jason Riggle (self-proclaimed “patron saint of the zombie people”) told me at registration that in the past, the surviving human crew had banded together to cram themselves into recycling bins, which began to shuffle suspiciously towards the center of the quad at approximately 5:50 p.m. on extraction day. This rudimentary Trojan Horse plan, however, was quickly sussed out by the zombies, and the humans that year suffered a bitter end.
12:41 p.m., Sunday April 10: “Are you guys still alive?” I yell to a group of HvZ players who pass by where I’m standing with my friends on the curb of Woodlawn Street. One of them does a double-take. Is he alive? I practically see the existential dread flash before his eyes — that is, before he realizes that I had spotted the neon green bandana that had marked him as an HvZ player. “No,” he answered, perhaps a little ironic, “I’m dead.”
By the time extraction rolls around on Tuesday, April 12, I’m ready to see some more action.
It’s 5:25 p.m., and I am hurrying to the quad, where I will hopefully witness a triumphant takedown of the last dwindling dregs of the human forces (50 people) by their bloodthirsty zombie counterparts.
In the narrow walkway between the Social Sciences Research Building and Foster Hall, I see Trigger-happy Flashlight Guy from registration, who’s apparently been converted into a zombie and is now on reconnaissance. He tells me that he’s been posted here by the zombie contingent, hoping to catch people who are walking from Woodlawn Residential Commons to the center of the quad. Armed with the analytics from UChicago HvZ, which inform him of the significant proportion of human players from Woodlawn, he hopes that he can catch a fair bit of Woodlawn humans. I wish him good luck.
When I arrive at the center of the quad where the zombies have gathered, I catch a few names and a few stories. Next to me, high on adrenaline, a zombie dives into a pile of leaves. Later, I discover that they are the infamous Liz Franson (A.B. ’19), this game’s top zombie by kill count, killer of one-fourth of total humans (33 players!) and feared by all.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“Enthusiasm,” they said.
And hard work, apparently. For this HvZ game, Liz has created a web scraper that scrapes the UChicago HvZ website for data and creates a map of predicted human locations for optimal hunting. With their engineering skills, they’ve modified Nerf guns — the Rival Hera Nerf gun, in particular.
“I’ve ripped up all the internals [of the Nerf gun] and replaced the motors. It sounds like a lawnmower,” they said, smirking. The modded device can shoot a bullet all the way across Hutch.
New zombies join us, bearing pool noodles as reinforcements. Apparently, the pool noodles can be used by zombies to tag and “freeze” humans during extraction, immobilizing them temporarily. By 5:45 p.m., a crowd of zombies is gathered in the center of the quad. They number about 30 and are all cloistered in blockade formation around the safe zone: the circle of bushes in the center of the quad where the humans will try to reach. T-minus five minutes. The excitement is palpable.
At 5:50 p.m., extraction begins, and the humans start sprinting. They strike haggardly in fits and bursts, one from the side of Saieh Hall, and another two from Ryerson. The humans will have to make it to the safe zone to win. And from the looks of it, they face pretty improbable odds.
It’s chaos in the best possible way. The well-oiled machinery of the zombie collective moves like a colossal tide around the safe zone, initiating madcap dashes in various directions as the hive-mind of the horde senses an approaching human. There’s yelling, groans, exclamations of triumph and defeat, and a lot of frantic Go! Go! Go! -ing.
In the corner of my eye, one human player is in the process of losing his dignity to win it all. As he catapults himself into the bushes of the safe zone, he chucks away his gun, half his body gets covered in dirt, and he lands ribs-first. Simultaneously, another player lands alongside him within the safe zone, albeit much more gracefully.
As victories go, it’s pretty epic.
These two players are roommates, I find out later, Jon Rositas and Collin Polasky, both first years at the college. They signed up for HvZ on a lark and now they’re here, at the center of it all, winning the thing. Along with Squid Tamar-Mattis (A.B. ’19), they are the only three human winners of this year’s game.
Jon recommends HvZ to every student at the college. “Lots of paranoia’s good for the heart,” he tells me as he dusts himself off, beaming.
With two minutes left on the clock: Liz leads the final, resounding chant: “What do we want?” “Brains!” The zombies yell. “When do we want it?” “Brains!” they respond, having not heard correctly. Cue even more laughing and running.
All around me is the sound, I realize, of happiness. How wonderful, to be swept up in the simple earthly thirst for blood, brains, joy, and connection. To be reminded that we are here with each other, us living animals, zombies, humans and all.