Twitter Vs. Zombies: New Media Literacy & the Virtual Flash Mob

by Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel

While institutions ponder how to make excursions into new media more efficient and profitable, the pedagogues at the digital table must push the other side of the envelope. We should be creating critical and reflective sandboxes that invite learners to set their own goals, make mistakes, collaborate, and improvise.

In November 2012, we created and hosted Twitter vs. Zombies, an epic zombified experiment in Twitter literacy, gamification, collaboration, and emergent learning. On the site, the event was described as: “Part flash-mob. Part Hunger-Games. Part Twitter-pocalypse. Part digital feeding frenzy. Part micro-MOOC. Part giant game of Twitter tag.” The game had emergent rules and was unleashed in the days leading up to an invited talk we gave at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. Our thesis was three-fold: that Twitter vs. Zombies would function as a lightning-fast version of a connectivist MOOC; that it would build a community of engaged players who would co-develop the game; and, foremost, the players would learn more robust ways to use Twitter. It worked. With little advance promotion, the game inspired 6,500 tweets on the #TvsZ hashtag, had 160 officially registered players, and led to 2,500 pageviews on www.twittervszombies.com across three days.

A game intended for short bursts of play with scores of people, Twitter vs. Zombies is a social media adaptation of Humans vs. Zombies, a massive game of zombie tag played on college campuses around the world since 2005. In attempting to organize a community around the concept of digital literacy, Twitter vs. Zombies doesn’t rely on the exigencies of traditional schooling. The game offers no certificate or diploma, but an opportunity to connect with others, to compete, and, foremost, to play. Twitter vs. Zombies makes learning voracious and lively by inviting new (and often wild) modes of interaction.

The game throws players together under a common hashtag (#TvsZ). The first step in forking the rules of the on-ground Humans Vs. Zombies game for Twitter was to reimagine the hashtag as an in-game action. Twitter vs. Zombies begins with three possible in-game actions: #dodge, #swipe, and #bite. A player can #dodge (protect him/herself) or #swipe (protect other players from) a zombie attack once every hour. After a player becomes a zombie, he or she can #bite a human registered in the game once every 30 minutes. The game begins with a Patient Zero, who can, for a short period of time, #bite humans without restriction. The game’s scoreboard is an openly editable Google Doc where players manually update changes to their status (“human” or “zombie”) and record kills (successful #bite attempts). The basic mechanics of the game are: 1. register; 2. tweet at least 10 times per day; 3. include #TvsZ in every tweet with a game action; and 4. try to stay human or try to turn as many humans to zombies as possible.

When the game first began on November 9, 2012, at 4pm EST, players almost immediately started improvising, turning tweets into poems, constructing tiny narratives, and changing their Twitter avatar pictures to represent their new zombie status. Players built their tweets to include appropriate hashtags, action tags, and made meaningful sentences like this tweet from Giulia Forsythe: “@savasavasava I’m yummy all right, but please try a nibble, not #bite. I’m just not ready to be a zombie tonight. #dodge #TvsZ.” They began changing their statuses on the scoreboard to things like “Zombie-Narwhal” (@drjaxon) and “Zombie Totoro” (@briancroxall). Quite quickly, the game was not its rules, but the improvised narrative that arose around the constraints of those rules. And the proliferation of the hashtag #TvsZ was the catalyst.

The game evolved considerably over the course of three days, and the rules became significantly more complex. Every 12 hours, we released a new rule or action tag, all of which are archived on the game site. Ideas for new rules were crowdsourced and ranged from blogging for a 1-hour immunity (#safezone) to uploading pictures of household items that could stun a zombie (#weapon). By the last day of the game, players had contributed scores of blog posts, photos, and Storifies. One of the most ardent human players, Bekah Hogue, was ultimately turned to a zombie and recorded a video message for the humans she left behind. Gerol Petruzella composed Twitter Zombie Style, a #TvsZ adaptation of Gangnam Style. By eschewing explicit outcomes, players were intrinsically motivated to investigate Twitter and its capacities. The learning was happening under the radar, the layers of which were revealed in the 6,000-word crowdsourced reflectionsgenerated after the game. With all the user participation and content, #TvsZ looked a lot like a connectivist MOOC.

Social media users develop network competencies equivalent to the networks they join, and in conjunction with research puncturing the idea of “digital natives” over the past decade (for example, “Digital Natives: Ten Years After” by Apostolos Koutropoulos), the exposure, or even immersion, in new technologies does not translate to fluency. A network of one’s friends, who may only use the network for communicating short personal messages will not push a user into new competencies. Without the impetus to follow, share, or tag in new ways, the user might simply replicate the functionality of a voicemail or a text message, thus missing the larger social and cultural potential of a network like Twitter. “If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen,” as Pete suggests in “Occupy the Digital: New Media and Critical Pedagogy”, then they benefit from classroom practice that “empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity.”

Through the discipline of critical pedagogy, expertise and fluency take on different meanings. Paulo Freire’s contribution to the field of liberatory education re-imagines rigorous inquiry as an innate pursuit, decoupled from educational institutions which serve to maintain status quo hierarchies. In their introduction to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, Levana Saxon and Virginia Vitzhum write that “[Freire] flipped mainstream pedagogy on its head by insisting the true knowledge and expertise already exist within people” (246). Connectivist scholars like Dave CormierStephen DownesGeorge SiemensBonnie Stewart, and Alec Couros have demonstrated that this sort of democratic pedagogy can live rigorously online.

We wanted Twitter vs. Zombies to create a flexible system for learning how to use a specific social network and to study how the users of that system would adapt it for their own creative purposes. As the game advanced from the use of simple actions (#bite, #dodge, and #swipe) to more involved activities like blogging and photo-sharing (#safezone and #weapon), players within the game constructed a collaborative narrative of the simulated apocalypse. Each new rule, built “on the fly” as the game progressed, tried to engage increasingly complex skills. Over the course of the game, players new to Twitter learned to tweet with a hashtag, insert a link into a tweet, build lists, follow other users, publish media to WordPress and YouTube, watch individual feeds, use Twitter as a collaboration tool, direct message, and archive content in Storify. They wrote to save their lives, they negotiated, and they reflected on their learning about a tool from both within the tool and outside it.

Because of its scale, the game had to be self-governed to a large degree, and the rules emerged based on careful deliberation by the community. Players weren’t working for a grade, nor did they demand an umpire. They answered each other’s questions about the rules, made judgment calls collectively, and worked toward consensus to solve problems. Certainly, a healthy portion of the #TvsZ players were already heavy Twitter users, but many were not, and by experiencing the game together, players were able to learn from each other’s digital skills, creative adaptations, and strategies.

In February of this year, students in Pete’s class at Georgia State University in Atlanta combined forces with the students in Janine DeBaise’s class at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to host Twitter vs Zombies 2.0. This student-organized project introduced a new pedagogical layer to the game; it involved preparing students for the kind of administration and composition necessary to host an engaging online experience. As part of their work for their classes, they constructed, moderated, and studied their own version of the game. The project immersed students in web design, network building, and narrative construction. Twitter vs. Zombies 2.0 collected 134 players from around the U.S., Canada, Ireland, the UK, and Germany.

There is nothing all that reasonable or systematic about the game Twitter vs. Zombies. What we’ve done is create a frame, a loose architecture from which narratives, epiphanies, relationships, and learning might arise. They do arise, if the players are voracious and expressly self-selected. The game offers the opportunity for them to map their own space for improvisation within it. The fact that the rules begin as a simple triptych but evolve via crowdsourcing allows players freedom within the frame but also the power to hack the frame itself. The crowdsourcing is integral to the play. Outcomes should not be wielded like weapons. We argue that mass-collaboration is essential to what we do as pedagogues, asking students to band together in deconstructing the hierarchies implicit in most educational institutions (hierarchies difficult to unseat without a mass of bodies working in concert, of which we as teachers become merely an arm). But the best learning activities also break the division between those inside the institution and those outside, confusing the boundary between who’s in the class and who’s not in the class. Thus, the frame of the class is just as primed for hacking as the rules of any “game” we might devise within it.

In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown define play as “the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” (18). This is exactly what Twitter allows, and why we’ve chosen to make it such a central component of our pedagogies, not because it’s the only space where this can happen online, but because it serves as a model for all the collaborative work we do, developing skills that ripple out into what we do in Google Docs, in WordPress, and even within (preferably open) learning management systems like Canvas or Edmodo.

Our work on Twitter vs. Zombies does not attempt to lionize the Twitter platform so much as the creative potential of the users it enables. The most successful connectivist MOOCs, rhizomatic learning, and mass collaborative pedagogical experiments endeavor to promote methods over tools, communities over canons, and agency over assessment. Our work in classrooms, in professional learning networks, in open access publishing, and in Twitter vs. Zombies reflects our respect for the rigorous commitment to learning that a community can leverage for itself.

In this way, play is critical inquiry — of the content of the course, the rules of the game, and the learning itself. Through exposure to uncertain parameters, communities, and outcomes, participants in the game automatically find themselves analyzing the game in order to play, to win, or to survive. This makes them active co-designers of the game, critics of it, and players all at once.

Within this collective of players and learners, there is no central authority handing down the rules. Contrary to the professorial, banking model of education, the rules arise from the mob. Thomas and Brown note that within a collective, “there is no sense of a core or center” (53). Each learner becomes both an explorer and an integral part of the intellect of the game. Each becomes their own source of authority, daring to improvise in order to make sense and meaning from the learning environment.

Cormier’s video session for the recently concluded ETMOOC reflects on the motivation for his first experiments with communal, negotiated learning. “The whole point of rhizomatic learning [for me]” he reflects, “was to take some of the great creative outputs that come from community learning and apply them to a structured classroom.” The design goals of Twitter vs. Zombies were similar; we wanted to create an environment that treated players simultaneously as students, community members, and storytellers. It was an experiment that was committed in equal parts to critical pedagogy, digital literacy, connected (or rhizomatic) learning, and play.

[A selection of tweets Jesse Storified immediately following the first iteration of the game.]