This post describes my experience playing Twitter vs Zombies, then reflects on the pedagogical innovations of the game, then poses some ideas for adapting it for Femtechnet’s DOCC 2014.
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Games that build community
I recently spent an unexpectedly fun summer weekend playing a game on Twitter called “Twitter vs. Zombies,” a role-playing game based on the popular humans vs zombies tag game played on many college campuses. Pete Rorabaugh hosted an installment of Twitter vs Zombies, a game he invented with Jesse Stommel (see their brilliant essay on the first TvsZ game here). I only knew Pete from Twitter, but I’d read about his innovative social media pedagogies, and wanted to learn by doing. If you search on the #TvsZ hastag you’ll see the game play tweets. Explore the posts by the official game account @TvsZ to see how the game leaders interact with players. The game took place over 72 hours, from Friday June 20 through Monday June 23, 2014.
Here’s Pete and Jesse’s description of the original concept:
Our thesis was three-fold: that Twitter vs. Zombies would function as a lightning-fast version of a connectivist MOOC; that it would build a community of engaged players who would co-develop the game; and, foremost, the players would learn more robust ways to use Twitter. It worked. With little advance promotion, the game inspired 6,500 tweets on the #TvsZ hashtag, had 160 officially registered players, and led to 2,500 pageviews on www.twittervszombies.com across three days.
How it works
At the beginning of the game, all players are human except for one zombie, called “patient zero”. Human players enter the game by tweeting to the game hashtag with short introductions. If other new players are like me, they will feel disoriented and uncertain what to do. Players may only vaguely understand how the game will work and we are, therefore, easy prey for the initial zombie. (Incidentally, this initial disorientation functions at the level of the emerging game narrative, since many post-apocalyptic narratives depend on disoriented characters forced to adapt quickly to new circumstances.) For an initial short period of play, “patient zero” can bite at will, converting many new players into zombies very quickly.
At the beginning of play, the rules are very simple, and then every 12 hours additional rules are announced that broaden and deepen the game. All game tweets must include the game hashtag #TvsZ. They may also include one of the following actions: (1) zombies attack a human player who has tweeted in the last 5 minutes by tweeting #bite at the player; (2) humans defend themselves by responding (within 5 minutes) #dodge to zombie; (3) another human player can protect an attacked human by responding to the zombie attack by tweeting #swipe.
There are always two sets of actions, one for “human” players and one for “zombie” players. The two roles are in opposition to each other, but there is no scorekeeping or points or way for an individual to win. Rather, the fun of the game is the production of a shared narrative that the players write as they tweet into the game. Each player’s tweet contributes their own perspective. Players rarely just tweet the action hastags; usually they associate some brief text with their #bite or #swipe. You could think of the game as a collectively-written epistolary neo-gothic fiction composed of thousands of tweets acting as micro-chapters. The story of the game emerges (and changes, more on that below) from the collective imaginations of the players. And, because the story emerges through players’ interactions, the plot of each installment of the game will be different from others. Will the zombies triumph? Will the zombies turn out to be humanity’s saviors? Will humans and zombies merge into some new hybrid species? Will zombies evolve consciousness and become vegetarians? The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of players, and the abilities of the rule makers to adapt new rule releases to their ideas.
Reflections from the midst of play
This section is adapted from a post I wrote during the play itself. It was inspired by a rule change that incentivized reflective blogging to gain strategic advantage in the game.
Quite early in the game, many players succumb to the zombie attacks, and the play becomes split between increasingly savvy human players and an increasing number of zombie players. I became a zombie within the first couple hours of play ☹. The official account reminded me to update my status:
@Profrehn Good little zombie. Get thee to the scoreboard.http://t.co/yFipr7mW4g #TvsZ — Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) June 21, 2014
So I changed my status on the scoreboard and updated my Twitter avatar:
After nearly 12 hours playing as a zombie (and yes, successfully bringing down a few humans), I was motivated to write a quick reflective blog by a recently announced rule that “substantive blog posts” would result in being converted back into a human. Yay! What a great motivator.
Game Play as Peer Teaching and Collaboration
This game is a wonderful introduction to Twitter. The game play is fun. It builds community among players and introduces them to some of the ways to use Twitter to build connections with others, to publicize blog posts, to develop ideas, etc.
Social Media Literacy and Additional Rule Releases
Since any regular tweet to the game hashtag makes human players vulnerable to zombie attack and all players must tweet a minimum of 10 times per 24 hour period to remain in the game, human players have to be very strategic with their tweeting. In order to survive, human players use direct messages to coordinate defenses and strategize when new rules are announced. They band together and strategically use their few defensive plays to protect themselves as much as possible. In fact, I was surprised to read on a player’s blog (she posted it to get an hour’s safety) that humans feel that the rules favor zombies. According to one very deft player’s blog:
The rules are severely slanted toward the Zombies and since I’m still human the rules don’t allow for me to have much playing time. I sit back, watch, learn and strategize.
In order to keep up with the timelines on the various players and game actions, players gain strategic advantage if they use Tweetdeck or other add-ons to Twitter functionality. It’s crucial to know exactly when an action tweet happened, as in most cases players have only 5 minutes to respond.
Emerging Rules Respond to Player-Produced Narratives
Players are encouraged to contribute ideas for new rules. Additional rules are released on a regular schedule, and they usually take the form of asking players to write, build, or develop some outside multi-media content and tweet a link into the game in order to execute some new action, or transition to a different role, within the game. Most rules encourage players to use multiple Twitter functions to strategic advantage, including such things as attaching photos, linking to blog posts, posting multi-media links, writing Twitter poetry that furthers the game narrative, Storifying game tweets to create collaborative Twitter poems, working with other players to create coordinated attacks and safezones, linking to purpose-produced vlogs that participate in the game narrative, and much more. See the Game Rules for complete description of the forms of media players learn to exploit to survive (if human) or to attack more successfully (if zombie).] For example, the official game account regularly requests players to suggest new rules:
#TvsZ rule committee is looking for your help. Please consider adding your suggestions here for next rule release:https://t.co/MwArdnDXLK — TvsZ Official (@TvsZOfficial) June 22, 2014
The structure of the game trusts players to play “by the rules” since it gives players the opportunity to influence the making of the rules. For example, it is players responsibility to change their status from human to zombie, etc. on a public google spreadsheet. The game action is therefore collective and emergent, rather than rule-bound and hierarchical.
This collectivist impulse makes the game much more fun for players, and also flattens the field of play, inviting players to hack the rules, to participate in the reinvention of the medium they are using. What could be more feminist than that?
Feminists and Zombies?
All this fun makes me think, of course, of adapting the game for use in my teaching endeavors. It is the best inclusive, community-building introduction to social media use and critique that I’ve seen. So I’d suggest that the central goal of a Femtechnet version would be building community among students in the various nodes of the Femtechnet DOCC 2014.
What would a Femtechnet TvsZ game look like?
The game derives some of its appeal to players by its participation in the current zombie-mania. Its strengths as an assignment stem from the fun of playing it. Players find themselves motivated to write blog posts, to interact with other (formerly unknown) players, to connect increasingly sophisticated digital objects and products into the game play, and to invite other players to collaborate on their production and strategic use. So the game encourages: community formation, teamwork and collaboration, peer-to-peer teaching, reflective blogging, participatory culture and narrative production, basic media literacies such as using Twitter to share blogs, vlogs, images, etc.
Critique as Play: Contagion, Binaries, and Hacking the Rules
Since the game partakes in the binary structure underlying popular zombie narratives while also encouraging players to participate in creating the rules of play, the game lends itself to deconstructive critique. Players could well be encouraged to engage in cultural production/critique as part of their play or when suggesting additional rules. If Femtechnet were to host a version of the game among some nodes of our classes, I would suggest that we consider shaping additional rules (to be released at regular intervals after the initial play has begun) that invite players to reflect on or engage with some of the following issues:
- The underlying metaphor of contagion/epidemic: This is the metaphor that drives zombie narratives, and it is one that feminists have much to say about. Perhaps a rule release during the game could invite players to read an excerpt from Sontag’s Aids and its Metaphors. [Update: Karyl Ketchum points out that Lisa Nakamura’s brilliant talk on Virality and Internet Shaming would be even better.] Players might be directed to write a reflective blog post, or introduce remediated elements of the essay, or share images of AIDS activism, or suggest a rule change, etc.
- The binary structure of the game: Game play involves a kind of conquest, especially if players build collective #safezones which can then be #overrun by hordes of zombies. These place-based metaphors, as well as the underlying “species” differentiation between the roles of humans and zombies, invite postcolonial critique. Perhaps a rule release during the game could invite players to find ways to subvert these colonialist thought structures. (In the version I played, a third “species” emerged, the #chorus, which was neither zombie nor human. This happened in reponse to player suggestions. See Resources for links about this topic.)
- TvsZ Twitterstream as an object of study: The twitterstream for the game is quite extensive, involving thousands of tweets and hundreds of players and many linked multi-media objects. This might be a great opportunity for network analysis assignments in some nodes, or for encouraging players to explore tools (in Excel, Minitab, Voyant, etc) to create data visualizations of “infection rate”, or maps of geographic distributions, etc.
- Engage with Femtechnet’s distributed, open, collaborative structure: Ideally, Femtechnet members might collectively host the game. Each twelve hours, a different Femtechnet member could be responsible for the new rule release. That would enable many of us to influence the foci of the game, as well as share the labor of writing and posting the rule releases. Other Femtechnet members could contribute in various ways: work on pre-game promotion by tweeting links to teaser videos (a la film trailers); build a Game website and rule page to host the rule descriptions, as they emerge during play; play along, inviting friends to participate.
- Since the game runs 24 hours a day, it is time-zone neutral. Players in different places participate for a couple hours a day in their own timezone, then other players (or nightowls) play at other hours.
- At the conclusion of the game, have a “party” to discuss it: Some nodes or players could participate in a group discussion via streaming video of the game play. Such synchronous activities, obviously, privilege certain timezones/nodes. Or we could have an open Twitter chat among all players. Some kind of post-play group reflective acitivity would be ideal, to cement the community among players.
- Pete Rorabaugh (@allisttelling) and Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) are both fine with FemTechNet adapting or remixing their game in any way. Some of the players I met in the game are interested in playing again, in many cases with their students during fall semester. They are from Canada, Egypt, and the US. I would hope they could join our play, if we decide to host a game. (They are also experienced players, and would therefore be very able co-hosts.)
- Other ideas? There are so many more ways to adapt this for Femtechnet use. If you are doing a unit in your course on feminist gaming, maybe you have suggestions? Or on social media and gender? What do you suggest?
- Web Site for Twitter vs. Zombies 4.0
- Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel’s essay about the initial version of TvsZ. Explains the basic concept and its basis in critical digital pedagogy.
- Maha Bali’s thoughtful discussion of what she learned playing TvsZ 4.0. (Maha and I and a few others plan to coordinate a future game implementation.) Also, read her post becoming a member of a third species.