DARTMOUTH - Six Nerf toy guns with names like "Maverkick" and "MagStrike" hang from Tyler Clark's shoulders and waist. He fires them to fight off an army of zombies here at the University of Massachusetts. Right now, though, he's holed up inside the campus center as the zombies await his exit.
Clark is playing Humans vs. Zombies - or HvZ - an elaborate adult version of tag that has invaded 50 college campuses in New England and beyond. Similar in spirit to the movie "28 Days Later," HvZ starts with one person playing a zombie who converts humans (other students) by simply tagging them with their hands.
"Basically, we get to act like kids again," said Clark, 19.
The game provides students with a distraction from studies as they chase one another from classroom buildings to dorms. Students say HvZ is a healthy way to keep them on campus on the weekends and away from drinking. But the game has come under scrutiny. Reports of large groups of students wearing bandannas and shouldering 2-foot toy guns have alarmed passersby on some campuses. The game has been banned at some schools, including Butler University and Washington State University.
"In a post-Virginia Tech world, people very rightly take that kind of stuff seriously," said David Tillinghast, chief of campus police at Bridgewater State College. "We have received calls that some people thought the weapons they were wearing looked real. Sometimes they are out there in camouflage fatigues."
The calls have subsided as faculty and students became more aware of the game. "As long as we're not causing trouble, the cops don't care," said Ian Marson, 20, who helps organize the games at Bridgewater State.
At UMass-Dartmouth, students said that police officers have asked them not to wear red bandannas so people don't mistake them for gang members.
The game was born in 2005 at Goucher College, just north of Baltimore. What began as a fun activity among a group of friends mushroomed to 70 players. Recent games have involved hundreds of players.
"It's like a big psych experiment," said Max Temkin, a Goucher senior and a HvZ national organizer. Temkin has played since he was a freshman. He and others at Goucher created a website, www.humansvszombies.org, with instructional tools so that other schools can customize their own versions of the game. "It really caught on to a degree that no one expected," Temkin said.
Players find one another through websites and online social groups where game administrators keep count of who is zombie and human. Another appeal for players is that they can't really lose. If someone is tagged and converted to a zombie, he or she continues to play the game in that role. The match ends when all the humans have been transformed into zombies.
"You have video game-type scenarios that you are completing through the game, sort of like a fantasy world," said Keith Rood, a junior at UMass-Amherst, where a new round began this month. "You also have the exercise and adrenaline rush. It's a big release."
To help spread the word about the game, Rood produced a two-hour video titled "Sixteen Days," which chronicled a recent match that lasted more than two weeks. Another attracted 1,500 players.
On a recent weekday as the game unfolded at UMass-Dartmouth, Dan Rutledge sprinted across a field and dashed between academic buildings as he fended off dozens of zombies wearing bright green bandannas on their heads. Rutledge, who is on the school's cross country team, easily outran the zombies. Whenever a zombie approached, he tossed rolled-up socks to temporarily stun them. Humans can fight back with Nerf guns, pool noodles, or socks to neutralize a predator for a few minutes.
"Humans are 75 to 100 yards away. Get them!" one zombie shouted.
One of those zombies was Enzo Demello, who said the game has opened some social doors and helped him forge new friendships. "I meet new people who I would have never talked to in the first place," said Demello, 19, as he and a crew of zombies stormed the campus. "I get to meet real people on campus."
Or at least fake zombies.
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