Mathews: The privilege of HvZ

Nailah Mathews, Contributing Columnist

Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ) is a Case Western Reserve University tradition. So is being annoyed by the people that play it. Whether the disdain is general anti-cosplay curmudgeonly behavior or actual annoyance at students that seem on God’s chosen mission to make sure the Binary Walkway is a mosh pit at a Death Grips concert, HvZ probably has as many haters as it does loyal players. But some current Case Western Reserve University students and recent alumni, myself included, have recently stumbled on a new, dare I say, valid argument that Humans vs. Zombies is one of the many examples of white privilege operating on CWRU’s campus.

“Nailah,” you might say, “people of color play HvZ! Aren’t you just picking something to be angry about? You don’t even go to this school anymore!” and you would absolutely be correct on all three counts. Let’s continue anyway. To get this out of the way early, HvZ is not an inherently racist game. It’s not an inherently bad game either. But, when looking at it through the wider social context of Cleveland, Ohio, and then from the socio-political vantage point of the entire United States, the game gets more uncomfortable to play.

Let’s take a moment to imagine that 12-year old Tamir Rice was not shot and killed in Cleveland in November 2014 for doing something that CWRU HvZ players do with joyful abandon: playing with toy guns in public. Let’s also imagine a timeline wherein the fatal shooting of 21-year old Thomas Yatsko didn’t just occur in November of 2018 in what used to be Corner Alley, right on CWRU campus.  

To be frank, any CWRU student who doesn’t know that black men specifically die often from police inflicted gunshot wounds in Cleveland, is living quite happily in the CWRU bubble, and also living intentionally outside of reality. 

To quote the current CWRU theater major who sparked this discussion, “It’s not great that people can play HvZ without having to think about how their actions would be responded to if they didn’t have the privilege they have … that [behavior] is damning and insensitive to campus members more directly affected by these problems.” 

We don’t do the things that we do for no reason. In everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, to who we vote for, and how we respond to major life events, all of our reactions to the world and our actions in the world are influenced by context. That context is built by our physical environment, the people in it, the cultures we grow up in, the experiences we have and so on. 

Our personal contexts are connected with those of our families and of strangers, creating cultures of people with similar and dissimilar beliefs. Separate cultures can intermingle in larger societies, as society is built on a variety of personal contexts, and as we structure societal roles and rules based on our experiences and expectations based on those experiences. 

The things that we believe are influenced by the things people believed before us. It’s the responsibility of adults to recognize that what we do, and even the games that we play, occur within and affect the wider context of the many intersecting cultures surrounding us. This is especially true for students privileged enough to enroll in a private university in the middle of gentrified University Circle, where a young black man was shot and killed almost this time last year, barely a block away from the university bookstore. 

On its own, Humans vs. Zombies is just a fun game, but considered in the scope of the broader world, it’s less charming to watch a group of 20-somethings blithely get away with what black people are routinely shot in public for: offenses like playing with toys in public, and maybe being too rowdy at the wrong time. 

So how do we grapple with the collective privilege that created HvZ? Non-white students who play HvZ have to ask similar questions. If Tamir Rice was killed playing with a toy gun, and Thomas Yatsko died for being disorderly, who’s to say a student of color playing HvZ this year won’t be accosted? How do white students play the game knowing it makes an unconscious mockery of actual people who live on and by our campus who are just trying to survive daily in a culture that is actively trying to kill them? 

I don’t have the answers, but we are obligated to pose the questions and to wrestle with them until we as a culture find the answer. I’m not arguing that all gameplay should cease forever. And I won’t even mind if you keep playing HvZ, or if you start playing to spite me. You don’t have to ask your black friends if playing is okay if you’re white, or call me a snowflake screaming for attention by even raising the question.

Human vs. Zombies is not a bad game, but it is an inherently privileged game. It has its fair share of cheaters and poor players who disrupt the peace by throwing elbows and shoving non-playing students, but it’s harmless. It’s even fun. But, when a group of predominantly white kids can shoot each other with Nerf guns while people of color in Cleveland are actually shot to death for going about their daily lives, the game gets harder to play. 


Correction: This article was originally published online with the wrong title. It has since been updated to reflect the same title that was used in print.