Night has fallen on the Stanford campus, but while the rest of your dorm is hard at work on problem sets, you and a crew of your classmates are out on a special mission. Everything is going according to plan when—what’s that?—you hear a twig snap. You look in fear at the rest of your group, as you all realize with a sense of dread that you forgot your balled-up socks back at the safe zone. At that moment, figures in headbands burst from the shadows—zombies! Despite your trusty Nerf blaster, you are overpowered quickly and mercilessly. You’re dead—worse than dead, you’re now a zombie too.
It’s that time of quarter again; Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ) is back in action at Stanford.
The popular college game was founded in late 2005 at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, and, in the decade since, it has spread to over 100 campuses across the country and has even gone international.
The rules of the game are simple, but the game itself is hardly easy. For the humans, the goal is to stay alive and complete as many missions as possible over the next few days; for the zombies, the only way to win is to turn all of the humans into zombies by tagging them sometime between dusk and dawn. Of course, the humans can fight back with foam dart guns or sock “grenades,” stunning the zombies temporarily, or seek refuge in a safe zone such as a dorm room or a dining hall. Non-players may not aid the humans or the zombies in any way.
Trevor Kalkus ’14 first brought the game to Stanford in spring 2012. Kalkus hails from just outside Denver, CO, and many of his friends went to the Colorado School of Mines, which Kalkus said “has a very big HvZ following.” By convincing his friends—as well as their friends—to help fight the undead, Kalkus created a lasting tradition on the Stanford campus.
“When you first hear about it, I feel like people are generally skeptical…but as soon as you get into it, it’s almost impossible for something not to happen that’s worth telling all of your friends afterwards.” Kalkus said. “It’s always exciting, and feels like you’re in the middle of an action movie.”
HvZ is now recognized by the school and sponsored by the Stanford Gaming Society, with games occurring on a quarterly basis. (An additional game was held last spring quarter during Admit Weekend, and was open to ProFros.) The current game was organized by Matt Mistele ’17, who has been involved with the game either as a player or a moderator since his first quarter on campus.
“Humans vs. Zombies is a great way to get to know people on campus,” Mistele said. “When your back is against the wall and there’s a giant zombie horde, and you have to complete missions with friends and people you’ve never met alike, it is a really nice bonding experience.”
Although Mistele likened the gameplay to a state of “constant paranoia,” he added that HvZ makes for some great storytelling. One of Mistele’s favorite memories involved a Social Dance class that ended in a shootout between the zombies who tailed a student to the gym and the humans who she called in for backup. Kalkus recalled the time when a human had to carry his zombie girlfriend across the Main Quad in a desperate attempt to save her life. (Not only did he succeed, but Kalkus said that the couple are now married.)
The last two games of HvZ have tinkered with the established rules some. Last quarter, there were two camps of zombies competing to score the most kills, but this dissolved into total chaos when they joined forces against the humans. (Mistele said that the humans lost last quarter’s game by a narrow margin, running out of ammo with just 30 seconds remaining.) This time around, the humans are divided; the majority of the players form the group XCOM, while the renegade faction EXALT broke off and armed themselves with advanced weaponry. Whether XCOM and EXALT compete or cooperate is up to them, but Mistele added that both sides may recruit new players later in the week.
One of the EXALT members, Eli Wu ’18, put his electrical engineering studies to practice by modifying a Nerf blaster. His personal weapon features a flywheel cage, buttstock, magazine release, foregrip and flashlight mount—all of which Wu designed and rendered on a 3D printer—as well as two brushless motors salvaged from a broken drone, enabling him to shoot automatically. Wu, armed with his high-tech blaster and a bag of sock grenades hanging from his belt, is a first-time HvZ player and is playing this game to win.
“I was testing this all through last week,” Wu said proudly of his blaster. “I’m extremely excited for this.”
Another newcomer to HvZ is faculty member Dan Klein, who can now add “zombie fighter” to his résumé alongside Rinconada Resident Fellow and Lecturer in Management at the Graduate School of Business. Klein brought his teenage son to join the hunt.
“I expect to die soon, so I think I want to get comfortable as a zombie,” Klein said dryly. “This is what it’s all about: Life, death, college,” he added with a laugh.
Kalkus hopes that the game’s following will continue to grow at Stanford.
“My dream is that even more participation happens,” Kalkus said. “It would be an entirely different game if, anywhere you went on campus, you had to really watch out for zombies or humans around any corner.”
“It’s just this excitement of living in an action movie—being your own hero,” Kalkus added. “That’s what really makes this contagious.”
Even the walking dead seem to agree.
“Brains,” growled one of the zombies.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.