We tend to think of our digital distractions as exactly that—distractions from the otherwise productive business of our daily lives. The Zombies, Run! game, however, could just as easily fit alongside the health and wellness posts on ProfHacker. This smartphone app (available for Android and iOS devices) is essentially a running app wrapped up in zombie narrative. Each run enacts a single “mission” in post-apocalyptic world threatened by zombie hordes. You play Runner 5—a courier with a mysterious past—and while you are running in the physical world, various characters from your struggling military base talk to you through your headphones, slowly revealing a background story. The narrative elements are broken up with music from your device’s playlist. And every once in a while you are “chased” by moaning zombies, which you outrun by picking up your pace a few notches.
As a running app, Zombies, Run! offers few on-board features. But it can connect with RunKeeper, and you also export your runs as GPX data, which you can import into many other fitness trackers.
As a game, Zombies, Run! does enliven your running routine. I was struck the first couple times I ran with Zombies, Run! how the app made me more aware of my surroundings despite the fact that I was absorbed in a story about zombies. This happened because characters would describe the landscape I was running through in the story (“Head for the fuel dump northwest of you!”) and I would instinctively look in that direction and of course, not see any fuel dump—but I would see what was really there, say a copse of woods or a busy intersection.
Zombies, Run! makes me think of Jesper Juul’s description of videogames as “half-real.” As Juul puts it, playing a videogame means dealing with real rules but in a fictional world. Zombies, Run! reverses this formulation. I run in the real world but am dealing with fictional rules. There isn’t really a zombie horde on my tail that I need to outrun. It only exists in the game.
And perhaps that’s why I find Zombies, Run! compelling but not something I run with more than a few times a month. There’s no cost to not outpacing the zombies. They’re only half-real.
(Disclosure: I paid $7.99 for my own copy of Zombies, Run! last September. The latest version is Zombies, Run! 2 and it costs $3.99. I haven’t used this version yet, as it requires a newer version of Android than my phone can support.)
Creative Commons Zombie photograph courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Hollister