On October 9th, two Physical Plant employees mistook a player of the popular game Humans vs. Zombies for a potential shooter. With the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College and the two other school shootings that had taken place earlier that day, the employees did not hesitate to notify campus safety of the potential threat and initiate the shelter-in-place.
Fifteen minutes after the alarm was raised the all-clear was given and the college returned to normal. Although there was never any threat to the campus, the Physical Plant employees were right to report the perceived threat to the authorities.
The incident should have ended there. But Hamilton administrators, always quick to identify and solve problems where they do not exist, forced the game to end for fear that its continuation might cause more confusion.
HvZ has been played at Hamilton for ten years without incident, so the assumption that the players would cause another shelter-in-place during their final day is ludicrous. It is hard to imagine somebody mistaking a bright yellow Nerf gun for a real gun, but considering the activities of the players, it is possible that once every ten years a misunderstanding could occur.
Hamilton’s decision to discontinue HvZ served no practical purpose other than to assure students that the game could never cause another unnecessary shelter-in-place.
According to Dean of Students Nancy Thompson, the game was ended due to the “disruption and upset” the shelter-in-place caused. Although only fifteen minutes long, the campus lockdown order significantly interrupted students, faculty, and staff as they went about their days, so it’s understandable why the school would want the game to end.
But there are ways the school could have responded without interrupting the 190 students—almost 10 percent of the student body—who signed up to play HvZ. Physical Plant employees, for example, should have been informed of the nature of the game and that Nerf gun wielding students could be easily identifiable by the colorful armbands they wore.
According to Jeff Landry, Chairman of Hamilton’s Emergency Response Team (HERT), “no college policies were violated” by any players during the incident and HvZ was ended by mutual agreement between Landry, Thompson, and the club’s leadership.
Looking at the span of events, however, it would seem that the club had no choice in the matter. The college forcibly cancelled the game via an all-campus email, only two minutes after which did they call the president of the People Who Like To Do Fun Things club, Fain Riopelle, asking him to discontinue it.
More upsetting than the shelter-in-place order is that, according to Thompson, Hamilton is “reviewing the College’s weapon policy given that toy guns have created confusion” as a result of the incident. Although Nerf guns are suitable for young children, they are apparently too dangerous for college campuses.
Director of Campus Safety Fran Manfredo recommended that Hamilton should “no longer allow guns, no matter what they look like or their purpose, on campus.” It is unclear what disciplinary action would be taken on a student caught carrying a bright yellow foam dart blaster around campus but apparently these toys need to be taken as seriously as if they were real guns.
The recent school shootings around the country may have also prompted the school to take steps against toy guns, but for a campus as remote as Hamilton these restrictions would be completely unnecessary. The college is not based in a city, and so the likelihood that a police officer would come across a student with a Nerf gun and shoot him is negligible.
The prevalence of gun ownership in our rural area also makes it unlikely that anyone would mistake a Nerf blaster for a real gun. The shelter-in-place of October 9th was an accident that could have been avoided by better communication between club leaders and Hamilton staff, but it does not warrant any further action by Hamilton.
This incessant hand-wringing over toy guns and the creation of new rules reflects Hamilton’s complicity in infantilizing college students. Humans vs. Zombies may seem like a childish game but if Nerf guns are banned, the school would be further extending the protective bubble over its students, who it encourages to fear everything. Now it seems that even a toy gun can cause “a jarring experience,” and the accidental shelter-in-place could be deeply upsetting for certain individuals.
From trigger warnings to Nerf guns, the college regards anything that has the potential to cause emotional distress as impermissible. Just as trigger warnings seek to protect students from scary ideas, a ban on Nerf guns is another hollow step towards protecting students from the outside world. The game may be immature, but banning Nerf guns would not make the school any safer, and serves only to treat students as children.