TOWSON, Md. (AP) - It's dusk on a brisk autumn Friday. At college campuses across the country, students are preparing for a weekend of booze-fueled debauchery.
The ritual extends even to tiny Goucher College. But some students at the liberal arts school north of Baltimore have found a different way to blow off steam.
Several dozen students are being led on a march around the perimeter of the wooded campus. They carry Nerf dart guns. A few bark out orders; the rest follow them. They watch each other's backs and stay in formation.
In their minds, they are among the last survivors of the human race, marching across a post-apocalyptic world where the dead rise from the grave. They remain vigilant, scanning the woods and training their guns on an unseen menace that could attack at any moment.
Their leader on this journey is a student dressed as a Mayan priest, although there's little more to the costume than a sombrero. Occasionally, he stops and directs his followers to sing and dance - to purify a tree, or so he claims.
The battalions perform without complaint. At one point, they launch into Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Later, they settle on "The Imagination Song," from an episode of "South Park."
Christopher Weed lingers apart from the crowd. Lanky and soft-spoken, Weed (who recently graduated) is the puppet-master behind this bizarre display.
As the students launch into a song-and-dance number, he can't contain himself. His chuckles give way to laughter. He buries his face in his hands.
"I love this game," he says.
The game is called Humans vs. Zombies. Weed and fellow student Brad Sappington invented it in 2005, drawing from games such as Assassins and Murder, in which players sneak around and slay one
another by throwing balled-up socks.
Really, it's just a high-concept version of playground tag. But the introduction of zombies provided an irresistible wrinkle, allowing the game to tap into pop culture.
"It's this way to watch an awesome flick like 'Dawn of the Dead' or some zombie movie and then try to be a part of what that means," game moderator Trevor Moorman said.
It offers a perfect cover for college students who don't want to be called immature but aren't ready to grow up yet, either. During a game, they can set aside the pressures of academics, tuition and the job market and run around like 8-year-olds at recess.
At Goucher, which doesn't offer many of the social opportunities common to bigger schools, Humans vs. Zombies quickly became one of
the biggest events. The college, with 1,300 undergraduates, has no
fraternities or sororities, and its only Division I sport is equestrian.
"We're all nerds," zombie player Libbie Wenick said. "Rejects from high school come to Goucher and become awesome. I don't mean that in a bad way."
The game is simple: Humans identify themselves with bandanas around an arm or leg; zombies wear bandanas on their foreheads. Zombies kill humans by tagging them.
Humans can "stun" zombies for 15 minutes by shooting them with Nerf darts or hitting them with socks. Zombies die if they go 48 hours without feeding, but they don't have to kill a human to do so - another, well-fed zombie can give his or her kill away to a fellow undead.
If the game sounds stacked in the zombies' favor, it's meant to be.
"We're simulating an actual apocalypse," Weed said.
After the rules for Humans vs. Zombies were posted online, the game spread to dozens of campuses. It's popular at the University of Massachusetts, Bowling Green State University in Ohio and Indiana's Ball State University, where more than 400 have played at a time. Zombies even infected the Ivy League, at Cornell University.
But it hasn't always been smoothly integrated into campus life. In the wake of mass shootings last year at Virginia Tech and this year at Northern Illinois University, some believe it's insensitive, if not dangerous, for students to march or sneak around campus with plastic dart guns.
At Bowling Green, campus police issued disorderly conduct citations against players in 2006, shutting down the game. Organizers hadn't told anyone they were playing, according to police, and people were alarmed to see students stalking each other.
This spring, Bowling Green administrators persuaded organizers not to use Nerf guns, which some players protested. University spokeswoman Teri Sharp said the guns caused widespread unease after the NIU shootings.
Humans vs. Zombies is also popular at NIU, though players there canceled last spring's game. Emily Sturnfield, president of NIU's Humans vs. Zombies organization, wrote in an e-mail that the game
would endure on campus, with or without the guns.
"We as a school have been through something quite traumatic, and we are not going to 'fight for Nerfguns' if the university is not ready for them," Sturnfield said.
Perhaps the most dramatic zombie-related uproar came in April at Alfred University, where the campus was locked down and text messages went out to students about a possible intruder after a staff member reported seeing a man carrying what appeared to be a handgun. The suspect turned out to be a student playing Humans vs.
Zombies, said Norman Pollard, dean of students.
The game was suspended for the spring at the Alfred, N.Y., school, and Pollard met with organizers to discuss ways to continue it.
"Here was a group of 75 students actively involved in a physical activity that didn't involve drugs or alcohol," Pollard said. "I can see the merit for them."
At Goucher, a similar debate has raged. Antipathy to guns is idespread at the liberal school, one of about 70 nationwide with an academic department called Peace Studies.
"Guns scare me," said Jennifer Jennings-Schaud, who teaches in Goucher's education department. "Nerf guns, regular guns, any guns."
Others think Humans vs. Zombies is a galling example of the insulated lives led by those privileged to attend Goucher, where tuition, room and board run about $40,000 a year.
"I went to school in the early '70s. We would never have such a game," said Jeff Myers, an English professor at Goucher who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. "It was a real possibility we would be playing with real guns."
The moderators of Humans vs. Zombies have listened to these and other concerns, but the complaints resulted in few substantive changes. Unlike at Bowling Green, requests to remove the Nerf guns
altogether were dismissed.
And the game has a backer in Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar.
"If I thought that banning Humans vs. Zombies at Goucher College would end violence in America tomorrow, then I would consider doing it," Ungar said. "But it wouldn't do that, and this (campus) is not a pit of violence because of this game."
Few students advocate a ban, but many think Humans vs. Zombies doesn't reflect well on Goucher. Political science major Michael Harmon said he would rather Goucher be known for its academics or for its requirement that all students study abroad. He's disturbed some underclassmen chose to attend Goucher because of the game.
"It was definitely one of the things that made me want to come here," zombie player Conor Moran said.
There's also a segment of the student population that thinks
Humans vs. Zombies is simply ridiculous. When the humans were on
their march around campus, a group of young women taunted them from a passing car, sticking out their fingers and yelling, "Pow! Pow!
Player Boman Modine bucked up the troops after the car drove away.
"While they enjoy a night of drinking and illegal drugs," he said, "we're ut losing weight and looking sexy."
Ultimately, there's something poignant about Humans vs. Zombies. When asked to explain the appeal of the game, players talk about the friends they've made. The game bridges divides between men and women, seniors and freshmen, computer scientists and poets.
And on a campus where students refer to each other as "kids," Humans vs. Zombies is a chance to bring back a childhood that some
never even got to experience. Growing up with structured activities, safe playgrounds and schools that ban dodgeball, they didn't get the primal appeal of the chase out of their system.
"My mom didn't let (toy) guns in the house, and I didn't get TV till I was 18," Modine said. "This is just me catching up."
Said Asa Eisenhardt, a creative writing major: "It's our last chance that we get to play pretend and really immerse ourselves, and maybe it's due to ... the quirkiness of Goucher, but you somehow don't feel like an idiot when you're strapped to the gills in Nerf gear and you're running around yelling squad commands.
"Conversely, can I laugh at myself? Absolutely."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)