A Walking Dead Complex

Lessons learned from zombie apocalypses.

By: Rich Shivener

Filed Under: Editorial Horror


The Walking Dead is haunting me – by no one’s fault other than my own. I’m playing Telltale Games’ episodic game based on writer Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead. I’m discussing that game in my classroom, where I teach freshmen about college survival skills. And when I’m not engaged in either of the former, I’m playing Jakk Pacific’s plug-n-play rail shooter based on AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Though we’re seeing a zombie craze of sorts across media, and an impressive rise of Walking Dead texts, I’m not sick of this trifecta centering on how humans survive in an undead world. They’ve taught me lessons – about myself and those around me.

Lesson #1: Empathy is my friend and foe

“Take as long as you need,” Lee Everett says, prompted by me, the gamer, the decision-maker, the person controlling Lee.

“There ain’t no time left to take.”

Katjaa and Kenny are looking at their nearly dead – and possibly soon-to-be undead – son, Duck, now wheezing out his last breaths. A day earlier, he was bitten by a walker.

Who will put down Duck?

Will Katjaa?

“I’ll do it,” Lee offers, solemnly.

My lips repeat the line. “I’ll do it.”

At that point in Episode 3 of The Walking Dead game, I started squinting, trying to hold back tears ready to spill over my eyelids. Empathy had a tight grip on my throat, and it stayed there for what seem like an hour, as I watched Kenny mourn over his wife’s tragedy and his son’s death. After all that happened, I couldn’t believe that I allowed Kenny to shoot his own son. That was the most powerful instance of The Walking Dead game, even topping the TV series’ moment where Rick Grimes offs a little girl that turned for the worse.

The game’s emotional potency rises from its concept: Through Lee’s point of view, the player is constantly stumbling along the spectrum of immoral and moral behavior, tormented by the unpredictable circumstances at play. One day, Lee might cool a heated argument, only to see a life suddenly ripped to shreds. In another, he might offer an alcoholic a fifth of whiskey, just so he can distract another person. Then he might teach a 9 year old to shoot a pistol, perhaps her only form of protection.

In all these instances, I see myself in Lee, and I wonder how I would react were this undead world real. I suspect that I would be a negotiator more than a fighter. A listener that would take arms if he really had to. A deceiver with a guilty conscience.

When I really think about, the game is ripe with opportunities for deep introspection. I’ll keep taking them, tears and all.

Lesson #2: Students can learn from the undead

Outside of my home, I’m teaching a course on college survival skills under the theme “Preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse.” The students participate in a variety of activities that touch on such topics as time management, goal setting and diversity while taking cues from zombie media, namely The Walking Dead, largely because it’s taken such a large bite out of popular culture. Of those activities, the most successful one yet was inspired by Telltale’s concept.

Three classes ago, the students walked through “The Road to Survival,” in which they imagined running into 12 characters from the game, including Duck, Lee, Kenny and Katjaa. (I used these player profiles.) After they “met” the 12, they went through four chapters that required them to narrow down the group – from 12 survivors to three.

Here’s the presentation.

By the end, each student had a group of four that included themselves.

In review, the activity heightened the students’ awareness and understanding of diversity, insofar as they noticed that everyone in class had a different group of survivors, as well as reasons for picking who stayed. I wanted the students thinking about their beliefs, values and assumptions, and how those apply to others. They certainly did just that, as evidenced by our discussion after. Questions came up. Why did most of us leave behind the children? Why was Kenny a favorite? And so and so on … and later when they filed discussion posts.

My co-instructor and I may pare down “The Road to Survival” next year, though. We envision presenting one high-stakes situation: Students must decide which two survivors will join them in an evac center, leaving the 10 other survivors behind.

I can hear the conversations now.

Lesson #3: I need strength …

While The Walking Dead plug-n-play rail shooter is not a thinking game, it is a respite from the heady concepts of Telltale’s game and my teachings. It’s a party game for nerds of AMC’s The Walking Dead, offering a short story mode, a horde mode, in which you take on hordes upon hordes until you die, and free play. That’s why I like it. When I play it, I blow away dozens of zombie hordes, and I don’t think twice about the implications of my actions. I don’t see myself in the game. I see zombies. I shoot them. I have a blast.

I recommend this game for those who survived the House of the Dead rail shooter. You might have qualms with the graphics, but that potential downside is routine for Jakk Pacific’s offerings of this sort. But consider this: It’s a game whose system is housed inside a plastic gun, one with an A/V cable that plugs into your TV. My expectations for graphical prowess were low.

Like the graphics, the gameplay is easy enough. It hasn’t taught me how to shoot – I get those lessons at the gun ranges – but it has reminded me that I’m weak. As in, when I held the plastic shotgun in position, my arms ached at an alarmingly fast rate. I needed several breaks, the kind that required a pause button. Each was a reminder that I should lift weights as often as I hit the soccer field, building my arms, chest and such. With stamina and strength, not to mention the ability to teach others, I might fare OK in an undead world.

Or not. Again, I’m thinking about those unpredictable circumstances that could turn humanity inside out.

The Outcome

Across media, The Walking Dead has instances that resonate with me, despite the hordes of zombie texts infesting popular culture. I see value in the aforementioned games, TV series, comics, and my little inspirations in the classroom. I am a lifelong student ready to explore. To survive.

Filed Under: Editorial Horror

About the Author:
Rich Shivener is the Lead Editor of Bit Creature. He is also a writer, instructor and iPad whisperer from the shores of Northern Kentucky. You can find him in Publishers Weekly and Writer's Digest, among other places.

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