'Map of the Dead' video game brings zombie apocalypse to Chicago

With a dozen brain-eating zombies standing in the way, it's clear that coming to Jewel was a bad idea. You can run away, but you still face a dilemma: Do you try to scavenge supplies at a nearby Walgreen's or a bar in Wicker Park?

Navigating the streets in a post-apocalyptic Chicago can be tricky in "Map of the Dead," a zombie-themed iPhone/iPad game that launched last month. The idea of giving smartphone users their own "The Walking Dead" fantasy comes from Jeff Merrick, a designer at Lakeview-based web agency Doejo.

Merrick had some free time at work last April and as a joke hacked Google Maps and created a directory of places that might be useful during a zombie apocalypse.

"I just kind of threw it up on a web server and didn't think much about it," said Merrick, 28, of Rogers Park. "But suddenly it goes viral and we had, like, 3 million visitors come look at it, so the next logical step was--let's make a game out of this."

For eight months, Merrick and a small team developed "Map of the Dead" as a turn-based role-playing game that transforms Foursquare from an amusing pastime to a desperate survival tool. The app uses GPS to pinpoint your location on a map and lets you virtually break into nearby real-life businesses and residences labeled with Foursquare data in order to steal food and weapons needed to outlast the zombie horde.

The app decides a place's potential as a haven for quality supplies (water, beer, baseball bats, Molotov cocktails and more) and how many zombies could be waiting inside to munch on your brains. It then assigns a threat level of one (safest) to four (mosh pit of the undead) for each location. You want to gather the best guns, swords and body protection possible to hit the most dangerous of the zones, such as military bases and hospitals.

The most zombie-infested place in Chicago? Downtown, says John Lendman, a copywriter at Doejo and frequent "Map of the Dead" player.

"There are lots of hospitals and big businesses around, so the Loop or Northwestern Hospital can be crazy," Lendman said. "When I go downtown, the first thing I do is look for people who have died and take their stuff. You can leave notes for people that say, 'Sorry, dude, took your backpack. Maybe next time.' "

Since the free app's March 14 release in the Apple Store, "Map of the Dead" has received more than 22,000 downloads and mobs of devoted fans who regularly suggest new features to the team. Merrick said he's working on an update that will add new features such as the ability to chat with other survivors.

"People still find the idea of the zombie apocalypse fascinating, and everyone enjoys thinking about what they would do if it happened to them, so that's the kind of experience we're trying to provide," Merrick said.

However, he's the first admit that most Chicagoans would be in deep trouble if a real zombie apocalypse happened.

"I think we're probably screwed because of the population density," Merrick said. "My personal plan would be [to] head to Lake Michigan, get a boat and get out of the city."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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