Friday, May 20, 2011

Why We Shoot Zombies

         Zombies, and their enthusiasts, have enjoyed quite the coming-out party over the past decade or so; from the success of the remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead and the Resident Evil and 28 Days Later franchises, as well as AMC's excellent The Walking Dead, to the popularity of video games such as, again, the Resident Evil franchise and Valve's superb Left 4 Dead and it's even superior sequel. Zombies have even shuffled out of the dorm rooms and apartments of 20-somethings and shown their decaying, pustular mugs on the streets in increasingly popular "zombie walks." My hometown even hosts a "zombie kickball" game.

              Just this week, an official at the CDC put out a humorous, but well-intentioned, zombie preparedness guide in an attempt to get some hits on the site and get people to take precautions before the occurrence of a real emergency. In hard-copy form, one can find The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks (yes, son of Mel) who also wrote the excellent World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

             We could speculate endlessly on the reasons behind the Zombie Renaissance, though I will only draw attention to a few here. A large part of it likely has to do with the normalization of geekdom. As my generation, the generation that grew up on Atari and Nintendo, Star Wars and Star Trek, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, hits adulthood, many of us have, proudly, refused to give up on our childhood enjoyments. Particularly, as our society has moved to a technology and information based economy, not only are nerds finding that they are the grown-ups, they are the grown-ups with the good-paying jobs. With money comes status, and with status comes the ability to dictate what's cool.

            I grew up a sci-fi/fantasy dweeb, and most of my adult friends the same. And although most of us have matured past 18-hour table-top gaming sessions, shelves of Star Wars novels and collectibles, being on a first name basis with the call-center guy at the Magic: The Gathering retail company and dropping more on cards in a week than a junkie would on a habit, that doesn't mean that on a weekend night we don't tuck our kids and spouses into bed, grab a beer, strap on the headphones and shoot zombies or aliens online with our friends until well past midnight.

             Why does the fantasy of being one of a small band of desperate survivors appeal so strongly to grown adults, particularly men? I know that many of my friend's wives and girlfriends would appreciate an answer, so I will attempt to give them one here. Ladies, the reason your husband/boyfriend is often way more into using an imaginary shotgun to shoot imaginary zombies/aliens/robots/stormtroopers/whatever in an imaginary world than he is interested in hearing how your day went is not because he doesn't care. He does. But shooting zombies is what he was designed to do.

            Much of the process of civilization is the process of emasculating men, for good or for ill. This is more complex than "men are designed by evolution to hunt animals and kill each other," although that is a part of this. Civilization has been fairly successful at conditioning out the male propensity for overt violence. (Just watch a few episodes of Starz's Spartacus if you need a reminder of how much more acceptable violence used to be.) But while individuals can be taught not to act on violent or destructive impulses, what has remained are many of the connected intellectual and psychological processes; specifically competitiveness and strategic and tactical thinking.

            This is why we are obsessed with criticizing the coaching decisions of our favorite NFL teams- "Well, I would have just run it up the middle again, instead of throwing a pass to the flat, they haven't been able to stop the run all game." Or baseball- "Why did he leave Martinez on the mound!? He's been getting shelled for the last inning and a half, and now they have two lefties coming up." This is why we need to tell you, when we are on the couch, watching Dawn of the Dead, safe and sound under the blankets and eating a bowl of ice cream, exactly what we would have done differently- "Doh! You never drop the crowbar! Especially for a croquet mallet. Always take the crowbar; it's indestructible, it is double-ended, you can stab and smash, you can pry open doors, it can be a hammer in a pinch, it can even be a walking stick if you sprain your ankle. Always take the crowbar."

            It is not just that we enjoy it, we need it. I can only speak for myself, but my lifetime of experience with games, gaming and gamers leads me to believe that what I am about to say is fairly universal. Our brains need to strategize, need to take a competitive situation against an equal opponent and study it, immerse ourselves in it, and put our best strategy on the line against theirs for all the marbles. When we don't have these things, our minds are like a dog on a short lead, or a tiger pacing a cage. And just as the canine or cat will never be satisfied with anything less than absolute freedom to run, nothing satisfies that need except the thing itself.

            Up until about a six months ago, my brother and I were obsessed with a game called Demigod. Demigod is a real-time strategy game where each player controls a single character, a demigod, in an arena-style team battle. (Just typing that sentence makes me wonder if I could find a game when I got online later tonight...) We played this game almost to the exclusion of all others for over a year and a half. I thought about it all the time. Literally. I thought about it more than I thought about food or sleep. I thought about it waaay more than I thought about sex. I thought about it when I would go on a run, or swam laps in the pool. I thought about it when I biked or drove to work. I thought about it while I was at work, and read strategy online during lunch breaks. At family gatherings, I would track my brother down so we could break down what had gone right, or wrong, in the previous night's games. I'd call him on my drive home from work to talk Demigod. We'd watch replays of world-class players and send them to each other. We read the strategy guides (check it out to see how serious these people are) put out by those players and tracked them down in games so we could learn from them. I typed up sheets with my character's information on it that I would carry in my back pocket so that if I had a eureka moment I could make sure it made sense and then write it down.

            This is more than just a case of incredible dorkiness (I hope). My brain needs that, and only strategy satisfies it, the way only food satisfies hunger, only drink satisfies thirst, only sex satisfies lust, and only human companionship satisfies loneliness. Without it, that very substantial part of my brain atrophies and, like a dog on a lead, I grow listless, bored and unmotivated and before too long, irritable. Leave that dog on the lead long enough, and even when you take the collar off, he'll just lay there and sigh.

             So when your husband or boyfriend* tells you they "just want to jump into a game with the guys for a little bit tonight," he's not just being a over-grown child. (*Not that women don't game, I just think the motivations are slightly different. Yes, I am stereotyping.) Instead of being peeved that he doesn't want to watch Dancing with the Stars with you, be grateful that he is finding a safe, non-violent, non-destructive outlet for a very primitive, and very powerful urge that we all share. Yes, the outlet game, whether it is on a tabletop or a screen, bears a great deal of resemblance to our childhood pleasures. Similarly, most of us have transitioned from spending our afternoons playing football or basketball to watching it on TV. Because yes, playing games is what we do. Strategy and competition are what we do. It's better than war.

           Because, ultimately, that what this is all about. Civilization has cut off the ultimate expression of men's strategic, violent and competitive instinct. Throughout history, a kingdom or city-state's declaration of war meant that nearly all of its able-bodied men would take to the field. While we still have plenty of wars, they are increasingly fought by a small class of professional soldiers, or in the last few years, drones. This is primarily a good thing, if you can say anything good about war at all.

            But we've evolved muscles and testosterone and strategy-minded brains to protect you, our wives and children, from threats that, in most parts of our society, no longer exist. But a few hundred years of civilization are not going to so quickly undo a few hundred thousand years of evolution. Culture is powerful, but not that powerful. So we play our games, yes, like wolf-pups at each others throats, honing our instincts and skills, because one day, maybe, just maybe, when you look out your window and see a shambling horde of undead former neighbors, flesh-hungry, coming across your lawn, you will be very grateful that your husband put in those long hours of gaming and keeps a crowbar by the bed. 



  1. I am glad you cleared up why it is important to play zombie games and all those other games you guys play. However, as I was reading your post a very important question came to mind, and I took a minute and spoke with Joel about it. The question is rather simple, What do you do if you shoot at at Zombie and he is wearing a bullet proof vest? Now Joel informed me that when one shoots at a Zombie one would aim for the head, so then I began to wonder what do you do if he is wearing a helmet? Joel then went on to explain that it would be important to cut off the zombies head. Now, I would imagine that a person would not want a zombie to get that close to them, considering Zombies can be a bit well, unpredictable. Please explain how to handle that situation.


  2. Well Kelley, your case is a perfect example of why playing zombie video games is so important. Clearly, Joel knows precisely what to do during a zombie attack, even in the event of the extremely unusual occurrence of a zombie wearing both a bulletproof vest and a bulletproof helmet. In that case one would, as Joel, described, be left with no choice but to attempt to remove the zombies head, which, as you point out, would be a dangerous proposition.

    Were your husband not to have invested so much time into practice zombie killing, and you were faced with such a dangerous situation, you both may have hesitated for a crucial moment, leaving the zombie an open lane of attack. But now you can rest assured, knowing that you have an experienced zombie-killer living in your home.

  3. Awesome post. While I'm not as much a fan of the zombie shooting it's no secret that I've gotten slightly obsessed with strategy games in the past. Even in lower tech cultures like here in Nepal it's very common to see groups of men huddled around gaming tables drinking tea. The games are different, the needs are the same.

  4. brian i really just love the thinking about the scene with a group of men playing games while drinking tea. that makes me smile. i love that while the idea of gaming is the same there you just don't see many groups of men gaming and drinking tea here.

  5. "Translate to Thai Pls." -Best comment ever.

  6. Hello My Name is Neil Bechem I have recently found inspiration from your post. Can you email me at I would like to have a conversation with you thanks!