Lab Rats

Playing with Science

On the psychology of laboratory games

Milan de Vries 18 April 2006

Milan de Vries trying out a crucial new lab technique (photo credit: Dr. Shuyan Chen)

On the playgrounds of our youths, many of us were chosen last when it came time to play games

There is no word for a group of scientists doing something together. Geese form a gaggle. Sheep have their flock. Crows, ominously, congregate in a murder. If they did have a word for scientists, though, it would be a cult.

Contrary to popular belief, scientists can often be found together. They work pretty long hours together in a lab. They meet together to discuss science. They hang out together in the pub after work. And they also play games together.

It's during these games that the vestiges of childhood playground ostracisms are most acutely dredged up. It is in reviving the geekiness, the awkwardness, and the different-ness of your youth, that membership in the cult of scientists is certified.

Games in my lab, like hairstyles on David Beckham, have gone through phases. Early in my second year it was on-line mini-golf. You used the mouse to both aim and determine how hard to hit the ball and then, by clicking the mouse at the right time, determined the accuracy of your putt. We played for a quarter a hole. We played about four times a day for three weeks. Then we stopped because we got too good. It turns out that in between games people were going back to their own computers and determining the proper angles and finding ways of predicting the windmill timing to get the holes right each time. Scientists are an analytic bunch.

Soon after that, darts became a serious lab obsession. Some people even went to the nearest dart store, a few towns over, to buy $50 sets of darts. Our crowning achievement was the statistical rating system we devised to be able to rank each player even though they played different opponents. Even better than that was the convenient web-based application we wrote that asked you to enter the result of a game, and then updated the ratings, plotted a graph of ratings as a function of time, and sent each player an e-mail with the output. Scientists are a quantitative bunch.

Probably the most embarrassing obsession of late, though, was nethack. Nethack is a text only (non-graphic) computer roll-playing game. You are a little "@" symbol, moving through a world of dots and commas. You go around killing things and collecting objects while gaining strength and skills. This may sound a bit primitive, and maybe even a little boring, except that the game is really brilliantly designed. The programmers have accounted for just about everything. If you forget to eat, you die of starvation. If you eat too much, you choke on a donut and die. If you neglect your cat, it'll scratch you and you can die. Mainly you just die over and over for a million different creative reasons. It was pretty embarrassing that we started staying late in lab to try to figure out how to beat the game, but it was far more embarrassing still when we discovered that one of our labmates had changed the system time on her computer because her character in the game did better on a full moon and the current date and time, which the game took into account, corresponded to a gibbous moon. Scientists are diligent in controlling for experimental variables.

On the playgrounds of our youths, many of us were chosen last when it came time to play games. Sometimes it was because we weren't deemed athletic enough, but mostly it was because we played games a little differently from the other kids. Little did we know that in being chosen last for the playground team we were being actually being chosen for a bigger team – team science.

Maybe being part of a cult isn't entirely such a good thing. I mean, it all seems like fun and games to me, but I hear these things sometimes end violently and whatnot. I'm afraid I can't really stop to consider that now, though. I have to go off and devise a clever strategy to win the lab's next on-line Boggle tournament.

Related links

Milan de Vries writes about graduate school here, and about the rest of his life, such as it is, on his website.