Posted on behalf of Richard Van Noorden
In the race for discovery and recognition, researchers have sometimes cheated, lied, colluded, suppressed evidence and even sabotaged others to get what they want — as Michael Brooks documented in his 2012 book Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science.
Two researchers today launch a game that captures this anarchic spirit. Board-game fans Caezar Al-Jassar, a postdoc at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and Kuly Heer, a clinical psychologist, have designed the card game Lab Wars to represent the scientific rat race, with extra sabotage.
“It’s a very exaggerated form of science,” admits Al-Jassar. Most testers wanted even more power to disrupt, he adds.
Competitors play lab archetypes, ranging from ‘PhD student’ to ‘emeritus professor’. They collect equipment such as electron microscopes and centrifuges, generate results, and acquire papers, books, and, most valuable of all, Nobel prizes. Characters interfere with each other’s productivity: a principal investigator derails a PhD student by dictating their experimental time; a PhD student annoys a post-doc by necessitating extra equipment costs; and so on.
The game is at its most cut-throat when players mess up other laboratories. They can steal papers or lab equipment, gain favours from peer reviewers, or sabotage other labs with radioactive materials and computer viruses. If all that sounds unlikely, Al-Jassar says that all the sabotage cards are based on real or rumoured events.
Some games based around science mingle education with entertainment: there’s a card deck of women in science, for example, Cell Trumps, and various efforts at representing evolution in board game format.
There’s an element of the didactic in Lab Wars, with some explanation of the lab equipment involved. The cards’ designs contain knowing winks: astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson’s face is cast on the Nobel medal, rather than Alfred Nobel’s; players compete for papers in the fictional journal Nurture. Al-Jassar says he hopes to add famous historical scientists with their lab equipment to the deck if there is enough enthusiasm. (As is the way for specialist products, LabWars’ Kickstarter page doubles as a purchase point for the basic game and as a fundraising campaign site for future interest; it will only be funded if the developers raise £5,000.)
But in the main, Lab Wars is for fun. Borrowing elements from established favourites such as Citadels and Dominion, the game is a fairly complex tactical battle that will take less than an hour to complete with three players; it is aimed at older children and adults, scientists and non-scientists alike.
And some testers, Al-Jassar says, have enthused about using the game to show others what science is really like. After all, for many a hard-pressed post-doc, research can feel like a game where the cards are stacked against them.
Richard Van Noorden is senior news editor at Nature. He tweets at @Richvn.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.