Zombies on Twitter Teach Digital Literacies and Online Identity

"The realm of the monster, that which appears at the perilous limit between what we know and what we do not wish to apprehend, what we are and what we must not be, what we fear and what we desire." --Jeffrey Cohen, The Grey of a Zombie Ecology

Over the past weekend a game of virtual tag broke out on Twitter under the hashtag #TvsZ. Twitter vs. Zombies was, in the words of the game's organizers Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh:

an epic zombiefied experiment in Twitter literacy, gamification, collaboration, and emergent learning.

Part flash-mob. Part Hunger-Games. Part Twitter-pocalypse. Part digital feeding frenzy. Part micro-MOOC. Part giant game of Twitter tag.

Both Stommel and Rorabaugh are editors of Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Teaching & Technology. You can watch their discussion at Duke about #TvsZ during a session titled "Digital Pedagogy, Play, and Collaboration". 

Several other reflections, including one crowd-sourced document, on the game are also available for your delectation:

I played not because I wanted to learn anything, but because I like zombies and Twitter. Many years ago I was very active in a browser-based MMORPG called Urban Dead that still is home to many thousands of zombies and survivors. In fact, over 2 million people have played Urban Dead for at least some period of time. I have also played the Zombie expansion pack for Red Dead Redemption, Undead Nightmare. And, of course, I've seen a few zombie movies; I root for the zombies. 

So, I hungrily leapt at the chance to play a zombie game on Twitter, even if there was a risk of being infected by new knowledge in the process. Others have already discussed the skills students can learn in a collaborative game environment like this, but here's a quick, far from complete, list of things one might take away from the experiment:

  • Twitter (hashtags, lists, network latency issues, gaining/losing followers, the affordances of different clients)
  • Google docs
  • Blog posts
  • Storify
  • Online collaboration
  • Emergent rules
  • Role-playing and identity

It should be obvious just from this short list that what may seem on the surface to be little more than a fun diversion (or an annoying pollution of players' tweets) can and did teach real digital literacies in a fun and engaging way. The game also engages several larger conversations, as the last three points I listed suggest. The last one—role-playing and identity—is one that I'll focus on in the rest of this post. Given my gamer background, I approached #TvsZ as an opportunity for roleplaying, as this Storify shows (sadly it does not record my avatar shifts):

What fascinated me was how easily most of the players also slipped on different roles. When “human”, every tweet sent was an opportunity to get bitten (and often led to silence on part of the humans). Zombies, of course, could me more prolix since they were not in danger. But everyone who was active in the game assumed the assigned roles rapidly, thereby collaborating on an imagined world carved out within the Twittersphere. Many users, myself included, changed their profile pictures after they were turned to zombies. Here's the final version of mine:

Twitter profile for a zombie

I've reverted back to my normal, informative-yet-boring profile by now, but I was tempted to leave the zombie identity in place for much longer as a provocation. By becoming nearly anonymous, just another corpse in a horde through the erasure of identifying details in my profile, I keenly felt how I was violating the norms of professional Twitter use. We're supposed to use the social network for connecting with our colleagues, sharing work, and some light socializing, not for adopting radical personae in response to a game.

After all, Twitter is public. The stakes for deforming one's online identity can be high, as any graduate advisor would surely counsel her students (especially those on the job market). I commented during the game that I was losing followers, as did several others who played. Deviating from one's expected content too far and for too long is punished in the larger Twitter game of “Get More Followers.” It's no great revelation, then, to point out that all of us on Twitter are role-playing all the time, but it's an insight that #TvsZ brought out in particularly delicious way. It also made me hungry for a larger game, one managed by a bot (itself a special form of digital zombie). If Cohen, who I quoted at the start, is correct, what does the game tell us about our desires in a virtual space, about the limits of online identity and how we meat creatures interact with and negotiate those identities?


Enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting. As for followers, maybe we all just really swapped a few of those who didn't need to be following us, to some more of those much more like us.  Until the game, I wasn't following you, but now I am.

Add new comment

Last modified Tue, 13 Nov, 2012 at 15:33