Internet Geographer


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.