picture of a robot with sharp teeth

A few days ago, I posted about my experience at THATcamp. In that entry, I mentioned another event that inspired me to get back to blogging, and that event was the massive open online social media game known as #TvsZ 4.0.

#TvsZ was originally called Twitter vs. Zombies: New Media Literacy and the Virtual Flash Mob, but apparently Twitter didn’t appreciate its brand being so closely associated with zombies, so the game’s originators—Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel—changed the project’s name to #TvsZ. The 36-hour session I participated in was its fourth iteration (4.0);  it attracted over 150 registered players, and perhaps a few dozen of those were active participants in the game.

You can read what #TvsZ is in by clicking on the link in my first paragraph above, but I’ll quickly sum up the game, as I understand it, here: players register to play through the tvsz.us website, and once the game begins, all players are humans (except for one patient zero zombie), and their participation in the game requires that they tweet using the hashtag #TvsZ. (This way, human players cocanld tweet without the hashtag and avoid being bait for patient zero and other zombie players.) At the outset of the game, there are only a handful of simple moves that are also signaled by using a hashtag:

  • #bite = patient zero or a zombie player bites a human player
  • #dodge = a human player dodges or deflects a zombie #bite
  • #swipe = a human player bravely enters the fray and swipes a biting zombie away from another human player, thus defanging the zombie’s #bite

Over the course of the game, new rules are added at a rate of about two new rule sets a day. I had played a practice round of #TvsZ with a small group of fellow THATcampers in Atlantic City a couple of days before #TvsZ 4.0 officially commenced. I liked the experience well enough to register to play 4.0, even though I knew that during the first two days of play, I would be spending a lot of time in airports and on airplanes as I made my way from Atlantic City, NJ to Fresno, CA. I figured I wouldn’t have much opportunity to keep up with the game, but I wanted to join in the fun, if only sporadically. I began playing on the evening of June 20, the night that the game began, even though I had only given the official basic rules a quick look over. My failure to develop a strategy resulted in my turning into a zombie—three zombie #bites in about as many minutes!—early on in the game.

I hadn’t hoped to become a zombie this soon, but I was a hapless, half-witted human with no real action plan to speak of, so there I was, converted into an undead unhuman with an uncontrollable hankering for brains. As a zombie, I was a little more successful, and my chompy teeth “persuaded” some humans to join my clan. More often than not, however, I was just spastically munching on other players, hoping I would gain some purchase on the flesh of some forlorn wretch of a human. Nevertheless, once the new rules started rolling in, it became harder to keep up with the direction the game was headed. It didn’t help that new rule announcements seemed to be announced only when I was up in the air in a plane or fast asleep on the West Coast. (The organizers and most of the players appeared to be on East Coast time.)

But even when I was a little slow (or daft) at absorbing the new rules, I found myself completely immersed in the game. For me, the most exciting element was the creation of an organic and collaborative narrative that humans and zombies both participated in creating. I enjoyed immensely developing the character of my little zombie alter ego, and I loved participating with other players in developing a narrative about humans huddled together in #safezones and zombies massing to #swarm their sites of refuge.

At one stage in the game, a handful of meditative and penitent zombies began to feel guilty about feeding on the flesh of the living, so they formed what came to be known as the nonviolent zombie coalition (#nvzc) and pledged not to attack and kill humans. This made the game more difficult for us flesh-loving zombies. In the early stages of the game, play seemed to be stacked in favor of the zombies, who fairly easily amassed a horde of undead. But later in the game, some pretty powerful rules were developed that gave humans more ability to protect themselves against zombies—or even to use an antidote to convert back to being human! So, when the #nvzc movement appeared, we zombies found ourselves at an even greater disadvantage. In particular, our ability to #swarm human hideouts was comprised, while the #weapons that humans used against us were increasingly effective. (I chronicled one particular failed attempt at swarming @allistelling‘s #safezone here.)

While I understood the #nvzc’s principled stance against the funnification and glamorization of violence in even the most innocuous of settings, some of us zombies became worried that the game was becoming less enjoyable at the expense of this peace-loving posture. One of my especially aggressive fellow zombies—@MTPcgr—reminded the #nvzc-ers that such a stance might even violate the spirit of the game; the rules read as follows: “Once you’re a ZOMBIE, your goal is turn as many humans to zombies as you can. Work together with your fellow horde members.” Our horde was fragmented now, and we weren’t able to team up on our human counterparts. 

The rules set that appeared following the creation of the #nvzc was truly inspired, and it is one of the reasons I became so enamored with the game. With the new rules, humans and zombies alike could work together to create a #poem, which, once it had been developed according to specific criteria regarding length and number of poet-participants, became the ticket for any player—zombie or human—to become a member of a new third species called the #chorus. The #chorus continued to contribute to the narrative of the game, and this allowed members of the #nvzc to set aside their ravenous appetite for flesh—to transcend the gorier aspects of the game and at the same time remain full participants. I finally did join the chorus (I assembled and posted my #poem through Storify), but I waited until nearly the last possible moment to do so. Interestingly enough, by the time the #chorus had become an option, many of the #nvzc zombies had broken their pledge not to #bite humans, and were feasting on humans with exceptional gusto. I guess zombies really do have more fun!

By the time the game had ended, I was completely hooked. Several #TvsZ players chatted at the end of the game in a Google Hangout, and we reflected on our experience, noting how much we’d learned, how much we had enjoyed this virtual community building experience, and how much fun we’d had playing the game.

For my part, #TvsZ was rewarding in multiple ways. For one intense long weekend, I joined a virtual community that was every bit as meaningful as other provisional communities I’ve been involved in through face-to-face interactions that coalesce during conferences and workshops. I don’t know how much I will continue to interact with the many new Twitter users I’ve followed (and that now follow me) as a result of #TvsZ, but I really appreciated the camaraderie, especially as I was either playing in the crowded, but lonely spaces of real-world airports or truly alone in my home (my partner, John, has been away and involved in his own community of real-life Feldenkrais practitioners in the Bay Area). The game also fed my recently revived interest in gaming, and while I’ve been more attracted to the social settings of tabletop gaming at my friendly local game store than to the virtual worlds of video game interaction, #TvsZ still satisfied my attraction to the communal nature of game play. As I’ve mentioned, some of my fellow #TvsZ gamers were much, much better at learning and using the rules to succeed at remaining a human (or, if a zombie, to score numerous kills). Still, there was no one way to play the game, and the real “winners” were those who immersed themselves in the experience and actively collaborated on the narrative. My favorite aspect of the game was the opportunity to build a storyline through dialogue, pictures, videos, collaborative poems, and storytelling. Put simply, I loved the storytelling dimensions of #TvsZ; this is what sent me back to my computer or my smartphone to monitor the plot and to contribute to it. #TvsZ also allowed the players to be creative via a multiplicity of genres. Of course, the narrative dimensions were important throughout, but by the end of the game, it was just as important to indulge in the lyrical and to become a poet. Posting pictures helped to shape how the narrative unfolded, and because the game was focused on the conventions of the zombie invasion story, the entire weekend played out like a sprawling work of drama or film. During the weekend, I was even inspired to watch a popular zombie movie I had missed at the theaters a couple of years ago, but it didn’t hold a candle to the drama that was unfolding in my Twitter feed. The creators of  #TvsZ designed the game to be a way to increase one’s social media literacy skills, and first year students at Georgia Tech were encouraged to play for precisely this reason. As an educator, I can also see how the game would serve a means to learning about genre and exploring its uses in digital media settings.

There has been talk of #TvsZ 5.0 starting up in about six months from now. I certainly hope this pans out, because I’ll be eager to play again.

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