UW News

July 20, 2011

John Sahr: Professor, associate dean, zombie killer

John Sahr admits, in all honesty, that he’s a pretty lousy zombie, and little better as a human zombie hunter.

John Sahr is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs -- but he's also a regular player n the Humans vs. Zombies Tag game. 'The guy's got spirit,' one student zombie hunter says.

John Sahr is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs — but he’s also a regular player n the Humans vs. Zombies Tag game. “The guy’s got spirit,” one student zombie hunter says.Courtesy Eve Riskin

But that’s OK — he’s an excellent professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs. And he’s likely the first UW administrator to regularly play the Humans vs. Zombies Tag game with students.

Sahr talked awhile in his Gerberding Hall office about fighting in the campus battle of living versus undead. It started a couple of years back, he said. “When I saw these kids running around with these orange bandanas and their Nerf guns, I thought — what they’re doing looks so goofy.”

He stopped a student and was told about the game. “It just instantly sort of resonated with me — the goofiness of it,” he said. “And I understood immediately the structure and point of what they were doing.”

Sahr, who is just short of 50, said he’s not otherwise much of a gamer, though he did play a version of Dungeons and Dragons with some graduate students a few years back. But when he learned about zombie tag, he knew he had to play, so he signed up.

“It’s kind of a funny way to have a connection with students,” he said. “I’m a completely incompetent player. I always get killed on the second or third day, and then I starve.”

The rules are pretty simple: There are two teams, the Zombie Horde and the Human Resistance. Everyone starts out the week human in a game seeded with a few zombies. Humans “killed” by zombies also become undead, and must “infect” others, making them zombies too, or die of starvation. A human can “stun” a zombie with a dart gun, to give time for an escape. Those wearing a bandanna on their arm are human; zombies wear their bandannas on their undead heads. The game has now grown to about 900 participants campuswide.

Sahr said, “I took advantage of my unusual position. For the first three or four games I was the only professor. So I created in some sense a kind of mythical character, Associate Dean John Sahr — you always had to say the whole thing.”

He used the games Facebook page to taunt opponents and issue challenges. “I’d spend the early part of the game trash-talking the zombies and the second half of the game trash-talking the humans.”

As a zombie, he once announced he would walk twice around the Drumheller Fountain. “That one was funny because about 50 zombies showed up, and made it just impossible for any humans to get near me.” Another time he promised to be on Red Square at a certain hour and to give a business card to any human who stunned him. The result? “I was out there for about 20 minutes and then a human came, guns blazing, and got me.”

Once, after losing a dare, Sahr taught a class with his face covered with “zombie blood.” He said, “It was funny how little they seemed to notice.”

Sahr is no longer the only faculty member — or administrator — to be infected with playing zombie tag. Eve Riskin, a fellow electrical engineering faculty member and associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Engineering, got involved last year, partly because her 10-year-old son, Aden, wanted to play.

“So I signed up, too — I needed to keep an eye on him. And I am arguably the worst player,” she said. “I’ve played four times and I have never killed a human.” Riskin said since shes slower than the students, “I’m easy cannon fodder for somebody.” Scott Hauck, a fellow professor of electrical engineering, also suffers from the zombie tag infection and plays the game.

John Sahr on the Humans vs. Zombies field of play, left, alongside student Ryan Alumbaugh. For a zombie and a human, they seem to be getting along well.

John Sahr on the Humans vs. Zombies field of play, left, alongside student Ryan Alumbaugh. For a zombie and a human, they seem to be getting along well.John Sahr

As for Aden, Riskin said the students always have an eye out for his safety. “The kids will take him under their wing, and run off for a couple of hours on a mission. Someone is always looking out for him,” she said. “Its something hes going to remember when he grows up. He says he wants to pick a college based on whether they play tag.”

Sahrs 12-year-old son doesnt come to campus and play, but has seen a couple of good battles and loves it. “He tunes up my Nerf guns,” Sahr said.

One might ask, zombie tag is all in good fun, but how is it relevant to higher education? “I guess Id say its relevant to my administrative work, in the sense that I’m interested in the students and community building,” Sahr said.

He sees team-building in the game, too. “You can see three zombies who’ve never met before suddenly encounter each other and realize theres a human nearby — and all of a sudden, theyre a team, coordinating strategy, introducing themselves to each other and having a lot of fun.”

Riskin, too, said the game occasionally gives her time to talk with students interested in engineering, and provide a bit of informal guidance.

Sahr is impressed by the students running Humans vs. Zombie tag each quarter. “I just have great respect for the students who are organizing the game. They have done a tremendous job of tuning the rules to address all kinds of things — primarily safety issues.” They stay in close touch with the UW Police as well, “so everybody knows whats going on.” When President Obama visited in 2010, for instance, the game shut down entirely and efficiently for two days.

Students who have battled or been zombies alongside Sahr return his compliment. Erin Brown, a biology major, said in an email that shes tried to “zombify” Sahr every time shes played the game, but others always get him first.

Brown said she knows Sahr doesn’t have much free time for the game, but added a bit of high praise: “The guy’s got spirit. Having him play the game with us has been incredibly fun for everyone, and it definitely adds a ‘cool’ factor to the game for all of the students.”

Eric Clapp, one of the student organizers, said it’s great to have Sahr’s participation. “One of my more favorite memories of him during the game was running into him behind Loew. He had a Nerf blaster, but likely wasn’t able to operate it if he were to be attacked by zombies, as he had a coffee mug in the other hand.”

Finally, how do Sahr’s own colleagues feel about his humans vs. zombies adventures?

Sahr said, “I guess people who know me — including my tremendous boss, Ed Taylor, dean of undergraduate affairs and vice provost — they know that I am a kind of prankster, and that whimsy and goofy kind of work for me. They roll their eyes, but in an affectionate way, I guess.”