Multiple times per year for more than a decade there are foam darts left on the Ohio University College Green when the sun rises. They are the remains of a game played the night (and often several nights) before where some dozens or hundreds of students have come together to simulate a zombie apocalypse. This looks odd at first glance and it only gets odder on second glance: despite its large following and longevity this game is largely unadvertised (except if you happen to see the play or the aforementioned darts); it is completely free and supported only by volunteer labor; and each iteration of the game is a unique and elaborate narrative creation featuring anything from simulated time-travel to filming a movie within the game to pastiches of other types of media in addition to the aforementioned and ever present zombies. Furthermore, this is not a unique phenomenon but only one college chapter among hundreds that play the same, or similar, games. When I embarked on studying the process that brings the Humans Vs Zombies (HvZ) game on Ohio University’s campus into existence it was with all of these idiosyncrasies in mind. I am a game designer and interested in this game and the people who create it for some of the same reasons that an anthropologist may be interested in studying an isolated traditional society rather than any of the major globe spanning cultures. This is not the same sort of game creation firm as Nintendo, Blizzard, or Hasbro but that difference makes it interesting. I’m using the term “game firm” to incorporate the wide variety of groups that make games in the world from those large companies to the club creators on college campuses. Imbedded in this research is one meta question: are the theories and findings drawn from other types of game firms relevant to HvZ and does that say anything about the general applicability of these studies to all game creating firms or are they only relevant to large companies?
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Methodology and Data Sources
I conducted in-depth interviews with five members of the Ohio University Urban Gaming League (OUUGL) moderation staff and one long time player. OUUGL is the club that plans and executes the HvZ game and its members are referred to as moderators or, more commonly and in this paper, Mods. Two subjects were female and three male; one was a current student and four were alumni or community members. Individuals were interviewed singly or in pairs depending on what environment they were most comfortable with. The information gathered from these interviews was then validated against other data sources including the organization’s written records, social media posts, gameplay videos that OUUGL posts online, and observations of planning meetings.
As a qualitative project with a limited scope this work should not be taken as making inductive statements about all games or all game creating firms. Instead it is best thought of as defining one way that a firm has been creating value for players and firm members for over ten years without any money exchanging hands.
The reader must remember that non-moderators are underrepresented in this study. This has led to opinions drawn from those players dedicated enough (and capable of devoting the time) to become part of the staff and all findings must be assessed with that in mind. During interviews the subjects were both asked about their personal experiences and motivations as well as what their time tells them other players commonly experience.
In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I participated in an early game of HvZ years ago and have been generally aware of the ongoing games since then. I do not know any of the moderators personally although after beginning the research I became aware that I had previously played tabletop games with some of the moderators some years prior. My experience and framework prior to this study is primarily in studying tabletop and digital game design. Parallels will sometimes be drawn with those more widely studied fields in this study.
This research is exploratory in nature. Although research questions were developed before the first interview and the research largely adhered to those questions there are many other topics that were raised where studying such a unique and unstudied organization can be valuable. This will be more thoroughly addressed under Further Research.
The research questions that will be fully addressed here include:
RQ 1 How are players recruited, retained, and assimilated into the organization?
RQ 2 How are mods recruited, retained, and assimilated into the organization?
RQ 3 How is value created for the players of HvZ?
Players & Communities
All players are not created equal. Some play more and some play less. Some have different motivations for play. Importantly for this work, some form communities with other players and a subset of those communities then provide value to the firm and other players. Most of the research that justifies these statements comes from video game research given that study of the Live Action Roll Playing or Live Action game space that Humans vs Zombies occupies is even younger than the study of video games. Whenever possible assumptions from video games will be tested against this study’s data to see what phenomena may be consistent from digital games to live action games.
Different video game players devote wildly different amounts of time to a game. For example, it has been established that the majority of players of the dominant Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft never play past the free trial period. Within those “long term players” playtime also varied considerably from a top quartile that played for 4.9 hours or more on days they logged in to a bottom quartile of an hour. This wide spectrum of player engagement is not unique to World of Warcraft or Massive Multiplayer games. Data from many other games, including narrative driven ones, indicate that many players do not engage with a game long enough to finish it.
Within this variable playtime different players find fun in different ways. Among the most venerable and iterated upon taxonomy for player motivations comes from Richard Bartle and established four essential player types in the Multi User Dungeons that were the dominant form of online game as of his writing and a precursor to modern MMORPGs. Bartle splits players into four non-mutually exclusive groups based on their goals: achievers, explorers, socialisers, and killers. Quite simply achievers want success based on the game’s explicit goals, explorers want to learn about the game (topology or systems), socialisers are interested in communicating with other people and killers seek to impose themselves on other players (often by destroying the other player’s in-game avatar).
When individuals are brought together into a community and we expand our understanding to include the firms that produce games then we need a different taxonomy. Burger-Helmchen has studied game communities that create value for firms and differentiates communities into tester, player, and developer types. Different firms require different communities to actualize different games. The tester communities can be used for bug testing near the end of a development process to make a “Game Developed With the Community” but other firms will draw in creative input from an early stage to produce a “Game Developed for the Community.” On the other hand, “The player communities are those communities which use specific technological artifacts to enhance the game, produce additional content or tune the game as they like, authorizing other users to make use of their creation.” The firm then must adapt to “harness” these user communities to create value.
The final group in the Burger-Helmchen game community taxonomy are developers. These are primarily divided from the other two by advanced technical skills that let them perform many of the tasks that are generally reserved for firm members. Developers could be viewed as an advanced form of the other two types and may or may not be waged employees of the firm. Patrick Cohendet and Laurent Simon further divide developer communities into communities of specialists that act as the firm’s principle source of creativity. “…the very reason why, we refer to communities instead of well-defined professions or jobs as in traditional industries, is because in the case of [Video Game Companies] those groups of people, essentially composed of young professionals, are bound by emerging and weakly formalized bodies of knowledge” These “weakly formalized bodies of knowledge” are often technical but we will see how such knowledge can exist in the less technical and more social world of HvZ.
Despite the increasing academic interest in games over the past few years community managers, the people who are tasked with interfacing between the game text and the player, are generally ignored by the literature. “They (community managers) are relatively invisible and low status compared to the developers, artists, and programmers who create the products they support, and the high profile celebrities brought in to do voiceovers and soundtracks.” They are, however, increasingly essential as games move to a “service-based business model” where instead of a game being a one-time purchase it is the gateway to a long-term relationship between the developer firm and the player.
Among other duties community managers help to bridge the gap between the players and the development staff. Maintaining a sustainable creative relationship between player communities and the firm requires “(1) mechanisms of motivation to encourage users to innovate, and (2) private or collective appropriation models of innovation to integrate user contributions.” These mechanisms and models are often based around the community managers.
The community manager role is so large but so unappreciated that one study of 1,470 game industry workers in Ireland only realized the existence of community managers within the local game development community when a majority of respondents (900) marked their duties as “other” on a survey. On further study they realized that the “other” responses hid a huge number of forgotten community managers. Even among dedicated researchers it is easy to forget the existence of these “non-technical” workers.
There is value in trying to apply theory developed for game creation firms in general as widely as possible but that should not make us ignore the more specialized work on games closer to HvZ. Live Action Role Play (LARP) “is an embodied experience where players enact characters in an alternate setting.”LARP traditions vary greatly and some of this variety can be captured by the “mixing desk” concept.This is a design tool used by some “larpwrights” (designers of LARPs) to conceptualize there events. A number of lines are put on a piece of paper representing various spectra the event can exist on. For example a line labeled “player motivation” could span from “victory” to “exploration” and the larpwright is then forced to deliberately choose where to put a upcoming event on that spectrum. Using this tool we can think of HvZ as a LARP with the default sliders pushed towards a highly physical (vs verbal) interaction system, a minimum of identity masking, and naturalistic environments vs imagined environments.
LARPs are widespread and even utilized in the corporate world so it may be surprising how demanding they are for players. Preparation for and execution of a LARP can exhaust a participant. In response LARP traditions have created systems of aftercare, debriefing, and other events to help there participants cope with the burdens of the event.
Humans vs Zombies
In 2006 a group of Ohio University students tried, and failed, to organize a campus wide game of tag. Undeterred, they then went searching for a rule system and idea that could create a large scale live interactive game. Internet connectivity made them aware of a game that pitted “Nerf blaster” armed “Humans” against “Zombies.” Ohio University has been host to a HvZ game in October (and often several more times per year) since then. Ohio University’s game is not the oldest HvZ game in the nation but there are very few older.
Core gameplay on the micro level involves players who have designated that they are involved in gameplay by wearing bandanas. “Human” players indicate their status by wearing a bandana around their arm. If they are physically touched (tagged) by a “Zombie” then that human player is converted into a zombie player for the rest of the game. Alternatively, a human may strike a zombie with a nerf dart or similar projectile which “stuns” the zombie and removes them from play for a designated period.
This micro scale gameplay yields an interesting macro scale game. Just like in many other forms of zombie media much of the fun can be in watching the zombie “infection” spread. Because humans can be converted into zombies exactly once with no chance to be converted back but zombies re-activate on a regular basis a natural progression is created. At the beginning of play there are very few zombies and, because a physical tag is more difficult than a projectile tag, their numbers grow slowly. By the end of play, however, most players have become converted to zombies and the few human survivors should feel both embattled and empowered.
These core play dynamics are supported and contextualized by scenarios built by a central organizing body. These scenarios can be elaborate and test a variety of skills. This body must both act as game designers building the play that drives fresh and exciting interactions between the players and must act as community managers resolving disputes, recruiting, and disseminating ideas. In the case of Athens Ohio’s games this is the Ohio University Urban Gaming League; a campus organization of students and community members who volunteer their time to design and manage the game.
Human Capital in HvZ
Players – “We play the game seriously but don’t take ourselves seriously.”
Players are both the product and the consumer in HvZ and in a very real sense there is no HvZ game without players. This sort of thing is often said of games in a philosophical way, that each playthrough is unique and therefor the game requires a player to be realized, but here it is literal. With the exception of a handful of physical artifacts (blasters, bandanas) and a short rule statement there is no HvZ without players. The players are both audience and actor in the narrative as well as serving as both player and obstacle in play, even the moderators are recruited exclusively from the player base and do not view themselves as totally separate. We understand from work on LARPs that playing in or leading an immersive game with other people can result in a significant expenditure of emotional resources and that deliberate institutional activities can help participants cope with the load. It is then natural to start analysis with RQ 1: How are players recruited, retained, and assimilated into the organization?
Just like in video games where we saw large variations in hours dedicated to play between the bottom quartile of players and the top different levels of energy devoted to HvZ by participants are pronounced. Starting at the top there are those who have joined the OUUGL Mod staff. In addition to the time spent in actual game play they are each attending a weekly meeting and using their time to develop the mechanics, narrative, and logistical elements necessary to host the game. In addition to the time commitments many are purchasing the necessary props out of pocket. These players are analogs to the Developers in the Burger-Helmchen Hierarchy with one key exception: the Hierarchy assumes that the dividing line between developers and other player groups is technical expertise but in HvZ the division is purely enthusiasm and social skills. The Mods will be addressed in much greater detail in their own section.
At one step down (or, arguably, parallel) to the Moderators are the “hard core” players. In HvZ Athens the archetype for this group is the “Red Team,” a group with approximately a dozen highly dedicated players at any one time (and approximately 40 members since the group’s creation). I was lucky in that the group’s founder and leader made the transition to Moderator while I was conducting my research and was interviewed for this study, Jesse, 2018, and made one of the long term Red Team members available to me, Jeremy. All of my interviews corroborated the value of Red Team in keeping play on track. One member stated their role as: “We keep an eye on everybody because humans will look to us to guide them…everyone is looking to someone with red pants.” Here he refers to the distinctive red camouflage pants that the Red Team ware – initially so they could easily find each other during games but that now serve to communicate their status to other players.
The Red Team players do not easily fit into the Burger-Helmchen Hierarchy. They are not Developers as they do not create major game elements and are not Testers because the only way to test an HvZ game is at full scale (more on that latter). Lumping them in with other players would be a mistake as they do serve a function, but it is social instead of mechanical. “When we recruit people, we are not just recruiting people that are super effective at killing zombies or being zombies… or athletic…we look for people who embody the spirit of the game. It is a game that can be abused if you don’t respect the spirit of the game.” This was a constant theme in many of my interviews: the necessity of sportsmanship and fair play in keeping the game running. The Red Team members see much of their role as modeling good behavior: accepting losses, taking risks, and embracing the experience. This line of thought actually led to the realization that there was another unexpected distinct tier of players, referred to by all of the subjects, bellow the hard core: “Good Zombies”.
“When you’re a Zombie you’re just getting shot the whole time and nerf guns nowadays sting…Its frustrating and difficult you might attack 20 times and not get a kill…But other people were Zombies for you so you reciprocate by being a zombie for other people.” There is an obvious power fantasy while you are a Human player. Even a first-time player will commonly successfully shoot zombies simply because it is much easier to tag with a dart than a physical touch. Many of the interviewees found that how someone behaved as a Zombie was far more diagnostic of character than behavior as a Human. It should also be noted that two of my subjects said that they preferred playing as “Starter Zombies” (who are not Humans at the outset of play) and this may speak to the sort of character makeup of a player that will become a Moderator. The hard-core faction Red Team also embraces the zombie role. The first of the Red Team members to be turned to a Zombie is expected to start turning former teammates as quickly as possible to create a “Dead Team” (often spelled Ded Team internally because “Zombies don’t have brains”).
Good Zombies could be considered part of the Tester community but that would not be very illuminating as they are the bulk of the consistent players. Because you need a large population to play (about 40 seems to be the minimum) there is no real chance to playtest except in live play. Some games are billed as being more experimental (most often the spring semester game) but all players, even the most casual, are part of the test population. Effectively there is no Player community as defined by Burger-Helmchen Hierarchy. This may speak to why this game has such a dedicated following and why it struggles to grow: the role of any HvZ player is similar to that of the dedicated inner community in other types of games.
The last category includes the occasional or one-time players. Just like with World of Warcraft and other games most players don’t stick around for long but some engage for years. Unlike most of those other games it is believed that sportsmanship is the key reason. “There is a humility to (being tagged by a Zombie) most drums have a 35 dart capacity and everyone modifies their blaster to shoot super far… and then you get caught by someone hiding behind the trash can.” Bartle’s taxonomy is useful here. When I asked about the four categories most of my respondents could recognize achievers, explorers, and socializers in the players but the response to killers was always some variation of “they don’t show up twice”. This was one of my biggest surprises in studying a game whose core mechanic is player vs player combat: if you primarily derive value from a game by defeating other players this is generally not the game for you. Killers, and those who simply don’t care for the game enough to regularly return, form the occasional players. In this HvZ players may be more similer to traditional LARPers than they first appear. Although the fader for HvZ is pushed towards a physical and violent game the players who are most engaged are looking for rewards outside of the core combat loop.
Mods – “It’s kind of like ancient druids: passed on verbally”
RQ 2 leads us to a deeper understanding of why the game looks as it does. On a formal level the requirements to apply for Mod status simply are 1) 18 years old or older and 2) have played at least one game of HvZ as a player. The existing mods then vote on whether to bring on the applicant as a “Contributor” which is a non-voting apprentice rank. The contributor will, in general, serve in that capacity for at least two games. During this period the contributor will be deliberately educated to the extent that the organization is able. There are a variety of positions that the contributors are given to allow them to learn and prove themselves.
Most commonly a Contributor is made a Rez Leader “A Player Character who can be killed by Zombies, most of the time they have perks to give to the humans… so the humans have an incentive to keep them alive.” This puts the contributor in a direct liaison role between the human faction and the Mods and includes maintaining the games narrative and mechanical pacing. For example, a common scenario has the Humans escorting a Rez Leader to a specific point; the Rez Leader controls the rout ensuring that they pass through the appropriate set piece events on time and plays in character to create an immersive world even when the players are effectively just walking through campus. “They learn to build the missions and then see them played before they evolve into (Mods).”
A similar role is filed by “Zombie Modlets” for the players who have been converted to Zombies. However, the Zombies have less narrative and more mechanical focus; telling a story for the zombies is less important than organizing the Specials (Zombies with special mechanical effects like the ability to bring stunned zombies back into play. It is also common for Contributors to take these roles.) and other gameplay levers to ensure play balance.
After two games there will normally be a vote on the Contributor to bring them in as full voting Mods, retain them as Contributors while they continue to develop or to ask them to leave the OUUGL staff. The traits that are looked for at all stages of this process are soft skills. There is no formal gaming experience required and some have little experience with games outside of there required HvZ game, however, all the Mods I interviewed had extensive experience (5-30 years) either with HvZ as a player or with game mastering tabletop role playing games prior to joining the staff. The process of recruiting and inculcating Mods has been iterated on over the years; at one time the first thing that a contributor was asked to do was to “create a mission from scratch… now it is more about everyone helping them.” It seems to be generally believed that the mechanics can be taught but an applicant needs to have advanced interpersonal skills from the beginning to be successful. This is similar to Cohendet and Simon’s “young professionals… bound by emerging and weakly formalized bodies of knowledge” except that that knowledge is also integrated with a soft skill set.
Most full Mods act as assistant planers outside of game play and then take on referee and other functions during gameplay. This does not end their deliberate development. There are sub roles for Mods in game play like the Zombie Mod (who is in charge of the Zombie Modlets and Specials), the necessary club positions for president and secretary, and most importantly the Administrator (Admin) who is the single senior director of the game. All respondents talked about how disorganized it felt to be instructed for those positions but it is striking how much training they did each receive. One Mod remembered her first experience as: “It was chaotic, I’m a first time Contributor, a Rez Leader… and we are constantly relying on (Mods) to tell us where are we going what are we doing… and I have a group of humans waiting on me to tell them what to do.” Now she is going to act as an Admin for the next short game to build her skills “It’s a good kind of stress…they are treating me just like (a respected former Admin)…I have the room to do what I creatively want to do but if I need the help I can get that sort of mentorship.” Even if each phase is a major jump for the Mod they are ordered sequentially and pared with mentors to make each challenge manageable. There are professional paid firms that do not invest as much time in developing employees.
Should the Mods of HvZ be thought of as Community Managers (as explored in the literature survey) or as game designers in the classic sense? They move through phases of each (intensely planning like game designers and then intensely managing human capital like community managers) but of the two the community manager skills are probably more important. This explains the focus on soft skills in the selection process.
Gameplay and value creation – “It satisfies something primal”
RQ 3 How is value created for the players of HvZ?
The purpose of this work is not to examine the intricacies of mechanical interactions in HvZ. I am not investigating how the game satisfies player desires so much as I am investigating what those desires are. We can start with Bartle’s Taxonomy. The taxonomy indicates what the types of players desire and we can imply that satisfying those desires is what a player derives value from. As stated earlier the “Killer” role is only well fulfilled while a player is a Human and can experience the power fantasy of defeating many Zombies. The game is not tailored to these players.
Socialisers get an interesting experiences from the game: Humans are encouraged by the mechanics to group together for protection leading to naturally occurring social spaces. Zombies have extraordinarily varied tactics ranging from solitary stealth and ambush (I was told a near legendary story from multiple sources of a Ded Team member that ambushed his Red Team comrades by hiding in an awning above a bar they frequented) to massive hordes (in the games heyday charging groups of 50 or more zombies were not uncommon late in a game). All of this gives a wide social space for players filed with traditions and bonding rituals. For example there are social rituals involved in the transition from Human to Zombie statuses such as chanting “One of Us” to welcome the new Zombie and soften what could be thought of as a defeat. Sometimes when the last Human is tagged the chant transforms to “All of Us” to celebrate all players taking their place in one unified community as they were at the beginning of the game.
All interviewees were brought into the game originally via social connections. Some remark that their friend group overlap almost completely with the people they play HvZ with. Related to socialisers, one motivation that goes unremarked in Bartle’s Taxonomy is those people that are principally interested in narrative and story. Interest seems to very greatly in how much players care about story. Some care greatly but most seem to be described by this somewhat self-deprecating statement from a narrative crafting Mod: “They like the narrative but really as long as we have something for them to do while they get to shoot there Nerf guns and survive another night they (are happy).”
This gets to Achievers which rivals Socialisers for the most common motivation and therefor source of value for players. Interestingly, because there is no explicit win state achievement is defined differently by different players making all goals player imposed. It is common for players to want to survive as long as possible as a Human but it is also common for players to use number of tags, risks taken, number of members of their friend group turned to Zombies, or even how good of a “death story” that a game generates as there personal victory conditions.
Respondents only engaged lightly with the idea of Explorers. Novelty seems necessary to most to keep the game from “getting stale” but exploration of either physical or mechanical space does not seem to be a primary motivator to many players in the experience of my subjects. Mods, on the other hand, are very interested in exploring the mechanical spaces provided by the game.
The Mods can also be thought of as Players seeking value given that they are not monetarily rewarded for their work. They are not Killers for the afore mentioned reasons. The Mod group certainly has socialiser tendencies; in meetings that I attended about two thirds of the time was devoted to social activity rather than business activity. They are, near universally, Achievers who derive satisfaction from playing the higher-level meta-game of design and community management well.
The existing literature on game design does apply to even so strange a game design firm as Ohio University Urban Gaming League and the players of Humans vs Zombies with some notable discrepancies.
- The emphasis on soft skills over hard skills makes the architects of the game more akin to community managers (or larpwrights and dungeon masters) than game designers.
- Bartle’s Taxonomy is an excellent way to view this player group but the motivation but narrative appreciation is absent.
- The Burger-Helmchen Hierarchy is a useful heuristic but because of the small and highly dedicated player base and playtesting environment it stretches the model.
There are two obvious ways to continue to study OUUGL and HvZ. One would be to expand the study to non-Mod players to validate the Mod’s beliefs about player motivations and the other avenue would be to open up the study to the mechanics of the game. A wider and possibly quantitative study of players could make the study more generally applicable as a model for other types of games with high participant numbers and interactions like MMORPGs. Plenty of material was gleaned as a byproduct of this work to justify a study of game mechanics. The discussions of difficulty and interest curves between the mods would alone have value and the nature of the game where decisions are being made in real time makes it an interesting case for games moving to a service-based model.
There is an immediacy to studying OUUGL. A game is brought from prototype to execution in weeks rather than the years it takes for AAA games. Feedback can be read off of a player’s face the moment a decision is implemented rather than being filtered through sales data or even social media. It is an outlier in the world of game design and its unique aspects make it worthy of study.
Featured image Zombie by TIGER500 CC BY 2.0.
Daniel Warmke is a game designer and PhD student at Ohio Universities School of Media Arts & Studies. He teaches about game design and programing, works on VR experiences for the Ohio Universities Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, researches rules phenomena, and writes paper and pencil RPGs. His next paper and pencil RPG, Cartomancy, has successfully Kickstarted. Daniel’s dissertation work is on emergent gameplay in tabletop and digital games.