Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Would Ben Do?

A few posts ago I mentioned a Spanish zombie game, Survival Zombie, that offers participants the opportunity to survive an overnight outbreak. I want to take a moment to talk a little bit more about it, because I think it gestures towards something important. Already on its 9th edition, the game is attracting the attention of global news outlets, such as BBC News and Guardian Liberty Voice, for its ability to attract large numbers of players to gather together to enact the zombie themed games. Part RPG (role playing game), part flash mob, part audience-participation theater, the increasing popularity of the games around Spain shows no signs of abating any time soon: according to the BBC blurb, game organizer Diego de la Concepcion says he is booked up through 2015, and has already begun booking for 2016. Unlike a simple zombie walk – where everyone dresses up in their zombie best to stumble around and moan together – the Survival Zombie games ask participants to make it through the night without getting infected (i.e. touched by one of the zombies that populate the game, and turned into a zombie themselves), while costumed actors enact a full-scale military response to the outbreak. 
I know, right?
These games, in a way that video games can only vaguely approximate, give players a chance to find out how they would fare in a zombie apocalypse. Are they fast enough? Are they smart enough? Can they endure? One of the most subtle, but I would argue most persistent, explanations for the popularity of zombie fictions is that they offer their readers/viewers/players an opportunity to ask these probing questions of themselves. Of course, this is true of most fiction. No matter what someone reads or watches, at some level, they are asking how they would fare in that given situation. What would I do if my little dog and I were swept away by a tornado and dropped in a land of ornately dressed little people?

Oz Life!
Dance, Munchkins. Dance!

Would I round up the weirdest damned posse ever and go kill me a(nother) witch? Or would I rule over these tiny dancers with an iron fist and some fancy new shoes?

Okay, it occurs to me that most people might not ask the same questions of themselves that I would. But whatever. Fiction, at its best, doesn’t only present a different world, or time, or life to be observed by an audience; it lets people imagine themselves in those worlds, making those decisions, living those lives. Zombie fictions, however, in a way that is palpably different from other fictions (and even from other types of horror), push their fans to ask those “what ifs?” of themselves more urgently. I would argue that the reasons for this urgency are plain: zombies, in all of their gruesome, gory glory, represent any and every worst case scenario that could befall our culture. 

War, famine, pestilence, and death are all obviously accounted for, but so are extreme weather, political and scientific malfeasance, calamity from space (aliens, asteroids, solar wind, etc), financial crisis, and on and on and on. If the popularity of zombies points to anything about our culture, it is the pervasive sense that ours is a society on the brink. Of what, precisely, isn't relevant - it could be any one of the concerns listed above, a combination, all of them, or even some unforeseen cataclysm. More to the point, rather, is the unconscious (mostly) anxiety that the social order we have constructed will not be able to sustain itself under a catastrophe.

Starting with Night of the Living Dead, zombie narratives have haunted audiences by making them ask what they would do, as individuals, if the scientists didn’t know the answers; if the church told us we all had it coming; if the government collapsed or went into hiding; if the police and military weren’t coming. What would you do? Lead or follow? Survive or dissolve? Run, hide, or fight? The zombie outbreak, as an allegory for societal rupture, allows us to explore how we would react in the event that the thin veneer of “civilization” that supports our system were to crack, disintegrate, and fall. Games like Survival Zombie are just an extension of these self-inquiries, taken to well-orchestrated and well-organized extremes. Everyone these days has a zombie survival plan, even the Pentagon and CDC. Books and movies let you think about your plan; Survival Zombie (and other games like it) lets you put yours to the test.

Good luck.

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