Although vampire partisans might debate it, zombies are likely the world's most popular monster right now. Zombie movies, television shows and books are big industries that immerse the public in a dysfunctional environment filled with the living dead. Now Yahoo is betting that zombies can be used to teach adults basic economic theory.
Yahoo Sandbox, the internet giant's research division, just released the zombie-themed Shambling Hordes for Halloween. The Flash-based game puts players into the roles of warlords who control picturesque "shambling hordes" of zombies to capture the castle of other users. The zombie hordes then, of course, divide and multiply. In the process, basic elements of game theory, classical economics and budget allocation are slipped in.
Programmers David Reiley and John Morgan tied into a huge groundswell of zombie fascination for their eduware. Fast Company recently reported on AMC's new The Walking Dead television series. Cult-favorite book World War Z is being turned into a Brad Pitt film. Then there is everything from 28 Days Later to Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland. Greater minds than ours have ruminated on the contemporary fascination on zombies; we don't know why, but zombies are just cool.
Reiley has an extensive background in economic theory and Morgan, apart from his role as a Yahoo research scientist, doubles as an economics professor. Shambling Hordes is one of Yahoo Sandbox's first edugames. Other prior projects include virtual stock market Predictalot, Flickr-based word puzzle generator PhotoSoup and the tech wonk-oriented VideoTagGame.
In the case of Shambling Hordes, zombies are used as the medicine to slip in genuine education about economic theory. The description provided by Yahoo is rather simple:
"Build an army of zombies and battle other players to claim your territories. Shambling Hordes is a game between two players that takes place on a map of countries. Each player has a home base where they can produce a number of zombies to form a team in each round. The more zombies a player produces, the stronger their army becomes. Players can challenge each other for control of a territory through battle, in which they strategically distribute their troops to beat their opponent. There is no random chance at all in the outcome; Shambling Hordes is completely a game of skill."
The game has an easy learning curve; even without watching the tutorial, gamers can figure out how to play within seconds. Shambling Hordes' aesthetics owe much to both the popular tower defense game Plants vs. Zombies and the host of Flash-based war strategy games. Players come for the zombie wars and leave with hands-on understanding of all the boring texts from college economics class.
It is important to emphasize that Shambling Hordes is located in Yahoo Sandbox and not in any of Yahoo's mass market gaming/entertainment portals. While the game is primarily being aimed at the market of, well, technology bloggers and internet researchers, Shambling Hordes could easily appeal to a larger audience. The take-home lesson is simple: If you want to teach economic theory to the public, just use horror movie trappings. It works like a charm.