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New publication: Mapping Zombies

Not often do I get to write about zombies, internet geography, German Wikipedia articles, cats, and goatse.cx all in the same chapter. But that is precisely what I got to do in a piece on “mapping zombies” that I carried out with Taylor Shelton and Matt Zook.

Feel free to download the chapter below:

Graham, M., Shelton, T., and Zook, M. 2013. Mapping Zombies: A Guide for Pre-Apocalyptic Analysis and Post-Apocalyptic Survival. In Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. Eds. Whelan, A., Walker, R., and Moore, C. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Abstract:

Zombies exist, though perhaps not in an entirely literal sense. But the existence, even the outright prevalence, of zombies in the collective social imaginary gives them a ‘realness’, even though a zombie apocalypse has yet to happen. The zombie trope exists as a means through which society can playfully, if somewhat grimly and gruesomely, discover the intricacies of humanity’s relationship with nature and the socially constructed world that emerges from it. In this chapter, we present an analysis of the prevalence of zombies and zombie-related terminology within the geographically grounded parts of cyberspace, known as the geoweb (see also Haklay et al. 2008 and Graham 2010). Just as zombies provide a means to explore, imagine and reconstruct the world around us, so too do the socio-technical practices of the geoweb provide a means for better understanding human society (Shelton et al. 2013; Graham and Zook 2011; Zook et al. 2010; Zook and Graham 2007). In short, looking for and mapping geo-coded references to zombies on the web provides insight on the memes, mechanisms and the macabre of the modern world. Using a series of maps that visualize the virtual geographies of zombies, this chapter seeks to comprehend the ways in which both zombies and the geoweb are simultaneously reflective of and employed in producing new understandings of our world.
augmented zombies and aural immersiveness

Last year I wrote about zombies and massively multiplayer augmented reality role-playing games (MMARRPGs) and the potentials for fun and terror as you run around a city being pursued by augmented infestations of walking dead. But a few days ago I had the opportunity to try out a different way of populating place with the undead using a new Android app called Zombies, Run!

Zombies, Run! follows an entirely different format to the confusingly similarly named Zombie, Run! that I described in my previous post. While Zombie, Run! situates the user/runner on/in a map of their urban environment, Zombies, Run! is less spatially aware experience.



The app is essentially an ebook broken up into a series of missions (i.e. chapters) that place you at the centre of the story. You crash land into a community of survivors during the zombie apocalypse and then have to constantly run in and out of the camp for a variety of reasons: “people are shooting at you, run!”, “we need supplies, run!”, and of course…“zombies are getting close, run!”

To add to the fun (terror?), you can activate your phone’s GPS so that the app can track your speed. This is where the the fear really kicks in. When you hear “zombie approaching. 50 metres,” you have no choice but to launch into a sprint, no matter how tired you are.

There have been quite a few negative reviews of the app: mostly focusing on the fact that (unlike Zombie, Run!), you don’t actually have to move to progress through the story and ‘win’ the game. In other words, the app doesn’t really care where you are, and so doesn’t live up to its potential as an augmented reality role-playing game. But I think that these critiques miss an important point.


While it is possible that the app’s minimal spatial awareness is an afterthought, it remains that aural augmentation has long been the most powerful way in which we blend material and digital stimuli. The app doesn’t need to be fully spatially aware to achieve its purpose (i.e. to entertain you, make you run, and terrify you). 


Ultimately it would be 'nice’ if the app did place you on a map and make you run from ephemeral, yet spatially-grounded, zombies that populate your urban environment. But the apocalyptic narrative, combined with your phone’s awareness of your speed, is still enough to fundamentally transform your experience of the city. This all means that I’m going to keep running with headphones in my ears; collecting supplies, going on missions; dodging zombies; and darting past people who have no idea that I’m surrounded by the living dead.
Zombies and Massively Multiplayer Augmented Reality games
Last week I was trying to run away from a horde of zombies. I ran faster than I had ever run before. I ran until my chest hurt and I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. I knew they were close and I knew that if I slowed down they would get me. But the adrenaline and fear kept me moving. It wasn’t enough though. I was still miles from home and knew that it was impossible to keep up the pace. There was nowhere to hide and ultimately I had to slow the pace of my sprint. I lost hope; I gave up, and that’s when they got me.


This all started when I was running on my typical route: across Oxford’s Port Meadow, up the Thames, and then towards the village of Wytham and the forest on the hill behind it. It was a sunny day and a peaceful run. A combination of the music on my smartphone and the sunny weather put me in a great mood, and I easily made it to the forest without thinking about muscle tiredness, warm showers or the pizza waiting for me at home. The way back, however, was much more of a challenge.

On the way home, I activated an app on my phone called Zombie, Run! I boldly set the outbreak level to ‘total pandemic’ and set the zombie speed to “28 Days Later” (the other options were Night of the Living Dead and Resident Evil) (Wired has an interesting article on zombie speed here for those of you unfamiliar with the finer details of undead taxonomies). This was clearly a mistake.

The app displays a map containing your own position and the location of the zombie horde infesting the space that you’re in. Most zombies show up as green icons, but turn red once they notice you. This is when you start getting into trouble.


Once they sense you, you need to run as fast as you can to escape. This wouldn’t be a huge problem with normal Romero-style slow zombies. But 28 Days Later speed zombies are an entirely different story: especially when you’re faced with a massive outbreak. They will get you.

This playful way of augmenting reality is still in its early stages and could undoubtedly take on a number of exciting forms. There is already a multiplayer option that I haven’t had a chance to try yet (why don’t I have more smartphone owning zombie obsessed friends who like to run?).

Imagine this sort of platform turned into a massively multiplayer augmented reality role-playing game (MMARRPG - for comparison see also MMORPGs). Games could be organised involving hundreds, or even thousands, of players. Zombie walks that happen in cities around the world are fun enough to attract thousands of participants, and there is no reason why a zombie-themed MMARRPG couldn’t also draw huge crowds.

There are interesting possibilities here, and augmented versions of tag, ghost hunting and more traditional role playing are already available. Zombies are clearly only the beginning (or in a different sense I suppose they could also be the end) of a new wave of augmented gaming.

In any case, if you see someone sprinting through the streets, out of breath and clutching a phone, remember that they may well be interacting with something that is innocuously invisible to the naked eye, ephemeral, and comprised of lines of computer code, but ultimately (and terrifyingly) trying to devour their brains.