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Julianna Baggott

Tag for the gamer generation

By Julianna Baggott
March 16, 2010

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IT WAS awkward this semester when a zombie and a zombie-epidemic survivor both showed up in my undergraduate creative writing workshop. I’d heard tales of Humans vs. Zombies battles raging on campuses across the country. What was surprising, though, was that this bizarre game struck me as an antidote for the ailments of a generation.

Humans vs. Zombies is a massive game of tag. One player starts as the zombie, what we used to call “being it.’’ All others are human. Both wear official bandanas on their arms. Zombies tie a second bandana around their heads. When a zombie tags a human, the human becomes a zombie.

The zombie in my class was on a tight clock. He had to tag a human before 48 hours were up or face starvation. Class was a safe zone, but tensions were high.

Despite the use of Nerf guns (which caused an uproar after the Virginia Tech shootings, and rightfully so), I can’t help but love the game — to see this generation using cellphones like walkie talkies to call for reinforcements, sprinting across greens, lying low in bushes, holing up in bathroom stalls. It feels like an attempt to claim an essential part of childhood — one that this generation simply missed.

My own childhood was spent running through the wilds of suburbia, playing a hybrid version of kick-the-can and dodge ball — a terrifying, vicious, exhilarating game that allowed us to act out primal fears. We celebrated victories madly, and took defeats hard. We made up our own suburban versions of Native American names. I was Jogging Hamster.

I felt like explaining to my class that in olden days this was what we called “playing,’’ an activity that was done outdoors, that called for speed, agility, an eye for hiding places, and a large dose of imagination.

I first realized that something had shifted since my own childhood when, 14 years ago, I started strolling my first child through newly constructed neighborhoods. There were swing sets, bikes peeking from garages, an occasional stray trampoline, but rarely a child, and never children playing, as I once had, in packs. Where were they? Many were in day care and after-school programs. But often enough, the children were inside their houses — having chosen the virtual world over the real one, right outside their door.

In their defense, the real world had become more dangerous (or was it the barrage of media telling us that the world had become more dangerous?) and they weren’t allowed to go out hiding, dodging, and being primal.

This gamer generation has been raised to equate playing with screens — running through virtual landscapes with joysticks, jumping with buttons while sitting in darkened playrooms often alone. They don’t have made up names. They have avatars that put Jogging Hamster to shame.

The most important difference is this: real play, unlike its virtual substitute, relies not on the ability of techies to create realistic CGI, but on the vividness of the player’s imagination. The stories that played out in my childhood suburbia were not a programmer’s plot. They were our own.

At this point, I have to wonder if I’m just an old crank, nostalgic for the joys of my own childhood simply because I was young then — like my father who loves the smell of coal pollution and the dusting of flowers with ash, because it reminds him of his youth in West Virginia.

Certainly the generation before mine bemoaned the loss of a true wilderness, and felt sorry for my generation whose connection to nature was stunted by suburban development. It’s trickledown sympathy, each generation shaking their head at the next. First, the wilderness was replaced by sprawl, in-ground pools, gnome statues, swing sets, and then sprawl was replaced by virtual worlds.

Perhaps this is why the game intrigues me. Humans vs. Zombies seems like a metaphor for a much larger and quite real battle that could be called the Real World vs. the Virtual World.

Of course, the real-world play in Humans vs. Zombies is still new to the gamer generation, and some elements of the game lack the spontaneity and inventiveness of my youth. With Humans vs. Zombies, they rely on someone else’s rules. They check into an official website, and there is, of course, a merchandising element. (The gamer generation is accustomed to paying for play.)

Nonetheless, not only was it as if a video game had gone live on our campus and specifically in my own classroom, my students had come to life, too. The zombie-epidemic survivor glared at the zombie. The zombie glared back, daringly. An air of excitement filled the room, and after class ended, I imagined them hurdling across campus, real wind on their real skins.

And I chalked up a small victory for the Real World.

Julianna Baggott is author of “The Prince of Fenway Park.’’

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