A blanket of silence falls over Fisk Hall. The only noises are the sound of my labored breathing and the enduring hum of florescent lights. “Where are they?” I wonder, uneasy. I crouch in my hiding spot inside a concealed alcove, clutching my only source of defense like a lifeline. A bead of sweat slowly drips down my forehead, an unpleasant reminder of how long it has been since my last trip to the gym. Without warning, cacophony erupts on the floor above me and a herd of students clamour down the stairs and around the corner. Armed with guns and swords, they charge right toward my concealed position. A zombie is in pursuit.
No, this isn’t a Walking Dead-meets-Call of Duty-meets-midterm-anxiety nightmare. It is a Friday night at 10 in a very real Fisk Hall with very real, very alive Northwestern students. The zombie, not so much.
Meet Nerf-Western, an informal organization of students that gathers in an empty school building each Friday night to play a fun, though still competitive, series of NERF wars. While they aren’t registered with the university, they hold elections, follow a formal constitution, adhere to an extensive list of game modes and rules and make Dillo T-shirts (the true mark of an established student organization).
Like many of society’s great institutions, Nerf-Western began as a group of bored college freshmen. McCormick senior Kirby Gong, the group’s fearless leader, always considered himself a NERF enthusiast. He and his friends from the North Mid-Quad held NERF games in the building their Fall Quarter freshman year. By the end of the year, the games had expanded to locations like Crowe, Kresge and Swift, and in the process had attracted a much larger crowd.
What began as an informal gathering of friends blossomed into organized events and a Facebook group. Regulars started showing up, and the game modes, rules and group’s arsenal (suitcases full of plastic weaponry) expanded. As Gong grew older, he began to recruit younger students to partake in the revelry, and a community took shape.
“I’ve almost picked up a rep’ for being the ‘NERF guy,’” Gong says. Initially, the speed at which the club grew surprised him, and he found himself enjoying how it developed into a method of meeting new people.
This Winter Quarter – as Gong anticipated his imminent retirement – the group held elections. Weinberg sophomores Ichigo Willis and Andrew Walker emerged as co-presidents.
Willis met Gong when he was her resident assistant in Public Affairs Residential College her freshman year. As a part of his recruitment strategy, Gong advertised to younger students. He approached Willis about playing, and she decided to give it a try. The community and carefree excitement had her hooked almost instantly. She started going weekly and made a number of close friends.
“Kirby’s passion was inspiring,” Willis says. “It was so obvious how much he loved the community he created.”
Now, she and Walker organize and lead the games, manage the Facebook group, and help run bonding events for other student organizations like the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi and the pledge class of Delta Tau Delta.
Running events is not as simple as arming a pledge class with 60 plastic guns and swords and telling them to go crazy. There are more than 24 game types outlined in the group’s official rules (including Reaper, in which dead players return as zombies) and various rules of engagement. There are even sword and dagger fighting (AKA sparring) skills to learn. Willis, for example, spent this year’s Wildcat Welcome week practicing sparring with Gong.
These skills come into play during regular Friday night sessions as well. Newcomers (like me) may find themselves shocked by how much – or little – skill one could have with a plastic gun. During water breaks there are gladiator matches, and pairs of more practiced members face off in duels. Rookies can try as well, but there is no guarantee of how long they’ll last.
Whether a seasoned vet or a fledgling marksman stumbling from floor to floor, it’s easy to see the appeal of the game. “It’s being able to be in the building by ourselves and not having to worry about homework and being able to forget everything for a Friday night,” Willis says.