The Kids Who Play with Guns

Two weeks ago, in the Opinions section of TSL, William Tachau PO ’14 expressed his discomfort with the large plastic guns wielded by many human players in that week’s game of Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ). Although I can’t claim to speak for all HvZ players, for the benefit of Tachau and others who have never played the game, here is one insider’s view.

There is something that happens to people when you put a weapon in their hands and situate them on the front line of battle. It does not matter that their guns are made of cheap plastic or that the approaching enemy is just a bunch of college kids with pool noodles and cardboard shields. You can see it in the tension in their faces, in the way they brace their bodies, in the absolute stillness of their eyes. They are reaching within themselves and finding strength, focus, determination, and, yes, bloodlust as well.

Watching them, you are reminded that these things were always there, waiting to be brought to the surface. You remember that we are all the children of hunters as well as gatherers, of tribes who slaughtered each other for millennia. You remember our even more distant ancestors who gave us our pointed canines. You cannot forget the fact that you are an heir to their long and bloody line. To deny that is to deny a primitive and vital part of yourself, one that exists whether you approve of it or not. Better to recognize that snarling thing within you and allow it out to stretch its limbs from time to time, so that you are its master rather than its oblivious zookeeper.

This is why we have all the forms of ritualized combat that we do, from organized sports to video games and children’s toys. We have our Super Bowl and World Cup and Little League, and also our Halo and our Call of Duty. We have toy soldiers and Nerf blasters and karate lessons for the kids. Since we cannot erase the violence inherent in our natures, we have collectively decided to create safe spaces where we may express our combative urges. Perhaps Tachau, who is so unsettled by play-fighting that Super Smash Bros. overwhelms him, would like to do away with such spaces entirely—but somehow I sense that this would not be a popular opinion among most Americans.

Students who play HvZ are engaging in one of these forms of socially acceptable, controlled, and safe battle that our society has created to replace the true wars our ancestors fought. In doing so, they are allowed to exercise the violent part of their nature in a way that involves no real harm to anyone. Unless a correlation can be proven between this play-violence and actual violence—and Tachau himself admits that such a correlation probably doesn’t exist—there’s no reason to restrict those who do want to participate in harmless fake battles. Anyone who doesn’t like the game doesn’t have to play.

Still, I can understand why Tachau feels uncomfortable when he sees people like me stride into the Coop with our Nerf guns slung over our shoulders. If violence has one visual symbol in our society, it is the image of the gun. However, more than simply a symbol of violence, the gun is a symbol of power. And power is not inherently good or bad. If you ever take the time to observe a squad of HvZ players in action, you will see the purpose of this power: to protect. No one really needs an over-volted Nerf Rayven or a modified Nerf Stampede to defend themselves. These are tools held collectively to ensure the survival of the team and the accomplishment of its goals.

What HvZ players understand, and what those who have never played do not, is this: Those big guns are heavy in your hands not because they hold any power to inflict harm but because they carry the weight of shared responsibility and the burden of your commitment to your comrades. That is why I am proud to carry them.