Kat Jones’ Revived: “Zombies are a metaphor for everything”

One of the things that I was most looking forward to about this year’s GenCon was the chance to play lots of LARPs (freeform roleplaying LARPs that is, not WoD or boffer LARP), and that hope was realized in full. I played in no less than four LARPs, but without a doubt my favorite was Kat Jones’ Revived. It was was smart, compelling, and intense. But more importantly, the issues that came up in play mirrored so many of the conversations that I had at the convention surrounding issues of diversity that I found myself chewing over the game for a good week afterward, processing what I had gotten out of it.

So today I’m going to be writing about Revived, what made it so compelling, and why it’s an excellent tool for illustrating privilege to the “uninitiated” (as it were). Before we get started, however, I’ll note that Revived is currently in external beta-testing, to be released at a later date (you can contact her here for details, website forthcoming in the future). If you’d like to see more of Kat’s work, you can find the much-more-light-hearted There’s a Fanfic For That here. (It does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.)

Premise: Zombies as a metaphor for literally anything

On the face of it, the premise sounds a bit absurd – in Revived you all play members of a zombie support group. But as the success of media properties like iZombie, In the Flesh, and Warm Bodies demonstrate, zombie fiction where zombies themselves are the protagonists and not just shambling nameless horrors is fertile ground for rich, dramatic storytelling.

The setup of Revived most resembles In The Flesh[1], in that there has been an outbreak of zombie-plague which wreaked havoc, but a cure was found and zombies are now simply normal people with a chronic condition that needs managing. However, characters in In The Flesh – which is naturally set in the UK – where there is universal healthcare. Whereas Revived takes place in the United States, where issues of inequality of access to healthcare make the premise instantly more complex, and forces players to be much more socially aware. To be fair, In The Flesh does touch on issues of inequality, such as assimilation, passing-privilege, and acceptance movements like Pride. But adding in the extra complication of unequal access to care has the potential to put every type of inequality on the table, depending on what the players are interested in tackling. Because, as Kat pointed out to us in the setup, zombies can be a metaphor for everything.

Now because there are so many widely varying, and often mutually exclusive, tropes surrounding zombies, before play we all worked together to create a “FAQ” about zombies. Ostensibly, this was to ensure that everyone is starting on the same page, but it didn’t take long for us to veer from “how zombies behave and think” into “systemic injustices that zombies have to deal with”. And that is the real brilliance of Revived; in a typical convention game it would be typical to have mostly or entirely white and cisgender players. In such a group of gamers, an overt conversation about privilege and systemic injustice would probably go… badly. (To say the least.) But through the lens of a game about the real-life struggles of zombies? Players can feel free to explore otherwise forbidding territory, because of the familiarity of the tropes involved.

Here’s what our “FAQ” looked like, minus a few notes added in Act 2.

In play: Exploring intersectionality with zombies

In our game, the setup wound up looking pretty bleak once we were through with it. Some of the major setting elements we came up with to start with:

  • There are two types of drugs needed to manage the “condition” – antivirals and antimicrobials (to prevent decay). The government provides antivirals to all sufferers free of charge, but antimicrobials are expensive and not covered by most insurance plans.
  • Many conservative religious groups actively advocate against “zombie rights” and religiously motivated violence against zombies is common
  • Only 2 states have protections for zombies in hate crime legislation, whereas Arizona (which, due to its climate, has seen a huge influx of zombies) is developing a registry
  • The zombie rights movement is splintered, with political activists, militant activists, and violent extremists all disagreeing on the best way to fight injustice.

And it got even bleaker in play thanks to the characters we saw in play: (my character) a homeless Mexican kid whose parents had declared him an abomination and thrown him out when he tried to come home, an “undocumented” zombie struggling to pass as living while navigating the difficulties of undocumented life in the US, and a zombie cop trying to do his job despite persecution from his fellow cops and lack of access to antimicrobials.

Of course, the foil for all of these characters is the facilitator character (or “counter player”) – the woman in charge of the support group. She is also a zombie, but has been essentially adopted by the state and is having all of her housing and medical needs provided, including antimicrobials. Of course, this means that she’s almost entirely insulated from the injustices that the other characters face, which makes her the White Feminist[2] of the post-zombie world.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t turn out to be the three players versus the counter player in terms of conflict. (Or rather, it didn’t until the very end.) The differing privileges of the three characters meant that they conflicted with each other in ways that highlighted intersectionality in fascinating ways. I clashed with the undocumented character over my refusal to assimilate or even attempt to “pass” as living. The zombie cop in some ways was the most powerful, given his position as a cop, but was also the most affected by the illness, as the only one without access to some form of antimicrobial – which meant that he was the one highlighting issues around disability and access. And no one could agree on what the best approach was with the living to best achieve progress be it civil disobedience, militant activism, violent resistance, pride movements, or appeasement.

In the end, each of our characters – even the facilitator character – wound up crushed by systemic injustice. My character was homeless and living under the radar due to his activities as a militant activist for zombie pride and illegal dealer of street antimicrobials. The zombie cop was weeks away from total disability due to lack of access to antimicrobials, that is if he didn’t first get tossed into the industrial shredder the police used to dispose of “ferals” and zombie malcontents. The undocumented character was trapped in a system that didn’t recognize his rights as a human being and ended up on a watch list for potentially “non-compliant” zombies – a one way ticket to resettlement in a feral compound, a trip through the shredder, or worse. And the facilitator character saw her one chance at government-sponsored change crumble, due to the failure of her pilot program, not to mention the potential loss of coverage and housing.

Post-Game reflections

Revived wound up being a very strange experience for me, in that playing my character was very much informed by the bullshit I’ve had to deal with as a result of my feminism while simultaneously allowing me to access an experience (however vicariously) of oppression that I will never face. As a white, cishet, able-bodied middle-class Christian, I will never have to worry about passing, or pressure to stay closeted, or dysphoria, or assimilation, or racialized violence – and yet all of these were things that wound up being very important to my character.

The things I found myself getting most angry about – assimilation, pride, refusing to feel guilty about my identity – were issues that I will never have to fight against in my daily life. But the language that I used was very much the language of intersectional feminism that I try to practice here on my blog, and the frustration that I felt felt toward the other characters felt incredibly familiar. I found myself saying things like “it is not my job to educate you”, “you do not get to prioritize your feelings over actual injustice”, “I refuse to not express anger about my lived experience of injustice”, “you do not get cookies for being a decent fucking human being”, and “this is about the radical idea that I am a person who deserves to exist” – all things I have actually said in conversations about feminism on the internet.

All in all, it was a strange and eye-opening experience, even (or perhaps especially) for someone who devotes a lot of time to writing about these issues. I sincerely wish there was some way to make this required material for all gamers, because this was hands-down the best and most accessibly illustration of privilege that I have yet experienced.

[1] If you haven’t seen In The Flesh, I can’t recommend it enough – even if you’re normally not a fan of zombies. It is amazingly compelling and hard-hitting and is just wonderfully acted.
[2] Please note that I say this as a feminist who is white; there is a difference between feminists who are white and White Feminists.

Now on YouTube: Lady Event Organizer Roundtable

I’ve never been a fan of status games, but my least favorite is this: there’s this thing that happens in the tabletop world where designers occupy the top of the status pyramid and are considered to be solitary geniuses who pull games fully formed from their brain meats.

This is deeply problematic, because it erases the contributions of women in many ways. Game design is not a solitary pursuit, you cannot make a good game without the input of other smart, insightful people – and I know a lot of women who rock at giving playtest feedback that helps to solve design problems for games still in playtesting! It also sucks because there is an ongoing impulse by certain high-status members of the community to gatekeep what “counts” as “a game”, and coincidentally a lot of the work done by women somehow manages to consistently get disqualified in these “conversations”.

But mostly it sucks because it plays into gendered narratives surrounding what is important to our hobby and what is trivial. Game design is seen as a male activity and is thus valued more highly than stereotypically “female” activities – even when those activities improve the hobby as a whole!

It’s something I’ve written about before in my post about a Twitter-flap over women in non-design roles in D&D:

…there are an awful lot of women out there in non-design roles doing work that is vital to the community. Convention organizing! Event organizing! Community building! All of these are vital! Gaming is a hobby that requires community, and that requires a space and a time to happen. Without the women doing this work, our hobby wouldn’t be what it is.

And it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Event organizing is vital because event organizers are literally creating the spaces where gamers can meet new people and interact with new ideas – which is what is needed to keep our hobby innovative and vibrant. So I’ve been wanting to talk about the work they do and maybe counter some of that for quite a while now. Because the gendered narratives surrounding whose work is valued in our community suck!

The problem that kept me from doing so is that I’m most decidedly Not An Event Organizer. I do pretty okay at keeping myself organized and on task, but event organizing is not (nor is it likely to ever be) one of my skillsets. So I decided that I would recruit some of the awesome women that I know who do event organizing to have a roundtable to highlight their experiences and why what they do is important. (Spoiler alert: it went super well!)

The hangout

Normally this is the sort of thing that one might publicize beforehand, but honestly this was agonizing for me to put together as I was dealing with all of the imposter syndrome. Which is why I put this together, made it happen, and decided to publicize after. Thankfully, all I had to do was let the awesome ladies I assembled talk and say really smart things. It went really well, even if I did say “awesome” too much.

Of course, the process of putting this together made me really appreciate just how much work event organizers do and how invisible that work usually is. This is something that I started trying to put together in January and only just managed now, and I can tell you that even for something this simple there were a fair number of things that I overlooked. (Thankfully everyone was super gracious about it.)

The team that I assembled to help me talk about this ended up being:

(You can also find Krista White and Strix on Twitter.)

Many thanks to the ladies who made this possible. Given how well this went, I might consider doing this in the future if I find myself wanting to spotlight a topic that I don’t have a lot of personal expertise in!