Library of the living dead

Zombie video game helps students with search skills

- October 31, 2019

A scene from Zombool.
A scene from Zombool.

From 1968's Night of the Living Dead by George Romero to each week’s episode of The Walking Dead, zombies are a perennial pop culture favourite. And with the Halloween season upon us, you’re probably seeing even more references to zombies — even in the Dal Libraries.

No, you can’t blame zombies in the library for why you didn’t turn in last week’s paper on time — but you could have zombies in the library to thank for your superior researching skills when your next assignment comes in ahead of schedule.

Enter ZomBool, a video game in which you try to survive the zombie apocalypse by successfully applying search strategies. A passion project created by data librarian Julie Marcoux, the game combines a zombie-themed, chose-your-own adventure storyline using Boolean search strategies to play the game.

Play the game: Download Zombool

Players start out learning that zombies have reached their city and are asked to help a character named Évangeline build a creature made of body parts of the dead to use in the fight against the zombies. The creature can’t be reanimated without a defibrillator, so the player has to make a decision — will they go to a pharmacy to find a defibrillator, find a weapon to defend themselves, or find Évangeline’s friend who may have a defibrillator in their dorm room?

“The choices you make will have an impact on the overall story,” says Julie. “The number of survivors and the endings change depending on how well the player does with the search strategies.”

Scarily effective Boo-lean strategies

Julie has been an academic librarian since 2011. After about a year in the role, she noticed a pattern — many students had difficulty when it came to searching for information.

In particular, they were struggling with Boolean searches — combining keywords with AND, OR and NOT to produce more relevant results.

(For example, if you search museum AND Halifax, the results would be limited to documents that contain both of the keywords. Searching for museum OR Halifax would include documents that contained either of those terms, while a search for museum NOT Halifax gets results about musems with no reference to Halifax.)

 “[It] works like math,” explains Julie. “In math, you use operators to put numbers in relation to one another. In Boolean searching, you instead use operators that work with words. It’s a phenomenon that’s been recorded in librarian literature – digital natives [people who’ve grown up with the Internet in their lives] don’t always have the strongest searching skills.”

Bringing the game to life

And so, in her free time, Julie developed a game to teach students how to become better library researchers. She started working on the game in 2012, before she started working at Dal. As time allowed, she’d work on the game, eventually putting in hundreds of hours before completing it in 2018.
“I’ve always liked doing little bits of light programming, but I’d never made a game before so I had to learn how to do that. Then I had to put together a story, different paths, different endings, as well as finding the art and the music. It was my idea but I had help.”

This included assistance from her family and her partner, who created the original artwork in the game. Some of the characters are even based on a few of her Dalhousie librarian colleagues, who gamely posed for photos that were then sketched into digital art. (Her colleagues helped test the game, too.)

Julie introduces many students to the game during her classroom visits, but she hopes students will also find the game fun enough to play outside of the classroom.

“I would really like for Dal students to start playing the game and I’d love to see universities across Canada and even the world try out the game — I have made it open access so that kind of sharing is possible,” says Julie.

Zombool can be played in English or French and is accessible for the visually impaired. With three possible paths and four possible endings, it can also be played multiple times, and for repeat players, there’s a little humour to go along with the gory theme. “If the player decides to replay the game, they get the same story options, but are given the opportunity to add more kittens,” says Julie.

The game is available for download from the Dal Libraries website or you can access the game on the computers at the Halifax locations of the Dal Libraries (except for the “express” computers).

Julie is proud of the game, which is a product of both her love for video games and helping students become better researchers.

“It’s really nice when a student can do a search and suddenly they get relevant results. They’re no longer trying random searches just hoping to find what they need,” says Julie.


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