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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: Humans vs. Zombies president reflects on friendships formed while fighting undead

October 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
A group of Humans vs. Zombies players pose at the columns. Many students form friendships that last long after the game has ended.

Joe Rexwinkle is president of Humans Vs. Zombies, a campus organization that pits humans and zombies against one another in a week-long game of tag.

I commonly get asked why I’m involved with Humans Vs. Zombies. As a graduate student and now an instructor at the University, it’s somewhat odd that I’d dedicate myself to another activity that could be taking time away from my core work and even stranger that I’d choose to do so with an activity that does little for a resume and involves running around with Nerf Guns – which is a decidedly non-academic activity.


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(ABOVE: Humans fight to survive during the finale of the spring game in 2010.)

I’d like to go back to my start with the organization to help illustrate why I think it’s not only worthwhile for me, but actively helps involve people with the university and encourage lasting friendships. I first started playing Humans Vs. Zombies in the spring of 2009, back when I was a freshman and Humans Vs. Zombies was just starting its first game. I had a lot more time then and running around shooting Nerf Guns and simulating the zombie apocalypse seemed like a perfect use of all the free time I had.

When the game started, I expected to run just around, play some Nerf tag, then go on with my life and not worry about it ever again. What I found instead was that the daytime game had me running into people I’d generally never see on campus and planning strategies, often trading contact information to work together in the future.

An additional benefit was that planning routes to try and avoid zombies or to plan traps as a zombie bestowed an intimate knowledge of campus that are shared by few outside of Humans Vs. Zombies players or campus facilities. The missions were even better for both networking and planning, requiring all players to form together in massive groups and cooperate in order to complete objectives. This required really getting the know the people around you, which was made easy with the common ground to start on, and extensively planning what would happen.

While this seems like a given, something that struck me as extremely interesting was the diversity of people coming together in these missions. We had stereotypical nerdy types there to satisfy a zombie fantasy, athletic sorts ready to out-sprint and out-compete everyone, plenty of representation from both sexes, all races, and from every college on campus. The players generally don’t notice these differences due to the focus on completing the objectives, but these are all groups that generally wouldn’t mix or meet that come together on a united front to play this game. In Humans Vs. Zombies, players only care about one thing: Are you here to play?


(ABOVE: Besieged players look on during the “Mark Twain Massacre.” A group of humans were trapped on a small balcony, surrounded by 200 zombies.)

That initial semester really drew me in. I got to be a part of the first massive stand-off the game ever saw, which came to be known as “The Mark Twain Massacre.” A small group of humans and I held off about 200 zombies for 30 minutes from a little patio near Mark Twain before finally being overcome by the horde. That is another really awesome aspect to this game: everyone has the chance to be a hero. Any Humans Vs. Zombies player you ask about the game will have a story about an epic stand-off: a charge to escape some zombies, a perfect ambush, something that they experienced that was legendary in the context of the game.

Despite the utterly fantastic time I had that first semester, there were unfortunately a lot of glaring errors with mission balance and game mechanics that were bound to arise from running such a large game for the first time. I played for another semester, this time forming a squad with my roommate to take on the horde. We survived the entire game, until a finale designed specifically to ensure the destruction of all the humans. Considering the flaws from the first game and the fewer, but still substantial, flaws in this second game and that I’d managed to play as both a zombie and a human, I decided it was time to try and moderate the game and improve the flaws I saw as a player.


(ABOVE: The “Third Floor Mafia” was one of the first squads formed in Humans vs. Zombies.)

I have now been moderating Humans Vs. Zombies: Mizzou for about five years. In that time, a lot has been accomplished on many fronts. The game is considerably safer, causes less interference with day-to-day activities on campus, and is now an official organization as compared to an informal group that gets together for the game. In addition to these highly practical improvements in terms of new rules, the moderator squad has always pushed to ensure that each new semester is the best game that Mizzou has seen. This has resulted in increasingly wacky and fun missions, starting with missions like 28 Brains Later (requiring zombies to infiltrate the humans defending a jello brain and devour it) and evolving into missions involving giant PVC tanks to go around campus and “destroy” critical points with a Nerf dart blowgun or building massive forts from cardboard to protect against zombie onslaught.

All of the fun of planning these crazy missions and seeing how much entertainment we bring to campus has definitely contributed to my decision to make time for this activity. However, there are plenty of activities on campus that are fun. There is something much deeper that speaks to me, that makes Humans Vs. Zombies stand out and that justifies freeing up more than 70 hours a semester it takes to plan and run the game. It’s that uniting factor I spoke about before. I still haven’t ceased to be impressed how well Humans Vs. Zombies brings people together.

It is amazing how many people I’ve heard say that they had no idea where they were going to make friends or find people with similar interests until they found Humans Vs. Zombies. I know that this seems odd to some that on a campus with so many diverse routes to take to socialize someone could possibly avoid meeting people, but joining a group with the exclusive purpose of discussing a singular subject is prohibitive to some who aren’t certain how much they can bring to the table or those who don’t really want to dedicate to heavy discussions or time commitments.

Humans Vs. Zombies provides a very lighthearted and relatively short game for people to take part in. At the same time, there’s no singular interest represented by the game. Competitive sorts will enjoy the competition between teams, those more interested in the fantasy aspect of the game can enjoy being a human defending against the apocalypse or a zombie trying to put an end to the humans, and some just want an excuse to shoot Nerf Guns between classes. All of these different groups are made to come together and have an immediate common ground, providing an experience that’s hard to match.

I’m always surprised looking at the close friends I have by how many of them I’ve met through this game. I’m involved with a martial arts club at the Rec, I actively pursue research, and meet a lot of people through classes. However, it’s rare that I get nearly as close to individuals in these settings as I do in the Humans Vs. Zombies game where you’re put in a situation where your humanity depends upon those around you and your ability to work together. I see my experience paralleled with many in our game. They return semester after semester for Humans Vs. Zombies , often teaming up with past comrades to form squads but keep in contact the rest of the year with those they meet during the course of the game. For a game that attracts more than 300 players most semesters, we have a surprisingly close-knit organization.

Thus far, this inclusive atmosphere has only been increasing every semester in conjunction with the size of our community and the increasing exposure of the game. With every new class we see an increase in the diversity in the organization as it is better understood as an opportunity to have fun and get to know people. I’m proud to say that we have every college present, Greek Society students, international students, and many more groups.

My final word on Humans Vs. Zombies is that if any part of the game looks like fun, be that competition, fantasy, ridiculous fun, or just the opportunity to unwind a bit with something that isn’t schoolwork and doesn’t take itself too seriously, please check out the game. The game runs through, so be sure to register before we start Nov. 6.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.