Communities, Learning, and More on Zombies

Running is an often-tedious task that must be done daily in order to accomplish marginal increases in speed and distance. For many, the act of starting running is in not as challenging as continuing running. The comparison between running and the disciplined act of critical reading and writing I teach in my classes is apparent, at least to my students who are regularly subjected to the comparison made by this runner/professor.

On Monday, Wendi Sierra, gave a great explanation of Zombies, Run! (ZR) and brought up significant points about the problems of engagement and sustainability in gamified spaces. ZR is a gamified running app that encourages runners to train by representing them as a hero in a zombie apocalypse. The game treats the runner like a video game character and his or her local neighborhood as the level to be conquered, zombie chases and all. There are plenty of other running apps that utilize gamification strategies, from points and badges to social media and healthy competition amongst friends. ZR is a more expensive running app in an oversaturated market, but still manages to sell competitively.

Last spring, I conducted interviews with users of ZR to learn more about the attraction to and use of the app. The overwhelming attraction was the narrative, and the app can be likened to the paperback propped up on a treadmill. It uses the narrative and music to distract the runner from the fact that he or she is running the same neighborhood route before work (participants were much more likely to use the app on their ‘normal run’ than on a new or long run). Participants were also attracted to the hypermediated space that ZR created. This both introduced a level of play (imagining one’s neighborhood as host to a zombie apocalypse) while also intermixing imagined dangers with very real ones (cars and dogs mostly). A majority of participants wanted an even more hyperreal experience from the game, like the chance to run missions with friends or to build missions around their individual neighborhoods.

Of the many game elements in ZR, the ability to get the user invested in the community that Runner 5, the protagonist, works to protect is perhaps the most significant. The plethora of running apps available mean someone can have friends who also run, but they may not all use the same app and, therefore, no one gets the social benefits built into the apps. While one can share his or her runs through social media or through Zombie Link, the community one runs for in ZR is imaginary and projects a sense of community where a cohesive group does not necessarily exist. In considering how to use games in the classroom, I think of how most video games meant for long term play are built on community and collaboration. Players often play online games long after they have mastered the game mechanics and would have become bored if not for their guild or clan.

For MediaCommons’ survey on teaching with technology, Chris Hager provided a great, non-gamified, example of how students can rely each other for meaning making in the writing classroom. However, many of the gamification apps and strategies are either individual or pit users against other users. How can we build game based collaborative communities in the classroom? If not, can we get them engaged with an imaginary community that fulfills that need?

Photo Credit: Justin Block via Compfight cc


Is the development of a community around the game enough to keep people coming back after they've reached the end of the story? You said it yourself that the overwhelming attraction was the narrative in the game but once that narrative has finished do the people keep playing? At what point do the players become dependent on the game as the motivating factor or does the game teach the players the motivation to continue running as a lifestyle choice? 

Great questions, all. Some of my participants did return to the game when they needed some extra motivation. They would replay missions that they enjoyed or ones that they had had a particularly good run on. ZR has actually come out with a second season with 60 more episodes, so runners who have played it through have more content to enjoy now.

Participants tended to use it in different ways and few of them used it every single time they ran (though that does not mean that some runners don't become dependent on it). I think your question, though, is a question we ask in and out of gamified learning spaces. If we create a community in a classroom or in an alternative space, how long do we expect that community to last? ZR is great at getting one started, but if the participant does not have a love or dedication to running once the narrative has ended, what is the next step? Likewise, if a student doesn't develop an internal dedication to reading or writing in the 16 weeks that I have to teach him or her, what is the next step, the obligation?

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