Science: The Gathering

I’m not a “games” person. I learned this about myself at age 13, when, while at a summer camp, my friend Alan invited me to play Axis & Allies. We played for 3 full hours—and despite an abundance of dice, battleships, and plastic infantry, we hadn’t yet done anything besides plan what we might later do.

“How long does this game last?” I asked him.

“It could go on for weeks!” Alan said.

I left.

So I was wary when I heard about a new card strategy game, Lab Wars, which promises-slash-threatens to bring the experience of pursuing a career in laboratory science into your very own living room. Designed by Caezar Al-Jassar, a molecular biology postdoctoral fellow, and Kuly Heer, a clinical psychology Ph.D. student, Lab Wars bills itself as “the science themed card game where you build up your lab and sabotage your competitors all for scientific glory.” In other words, it’s a game that lets you take your work home with you.

Without a doubt, the best part of this description is the explicit acceptance of sabotage as a tactic for professional advancement in science. Even if it’s not the norm, we’ve all heard stories of spitting in another person’s bacterial cultures, or negatively peer reviewing a competitor’s paper, or the most devastating way to sabotage someone’s lab: recommending it to prospective high school interns. Lab Wars pre-acknowledges that in order to thrive as a scientist, someone else must fail. Hence “Wars.”

That’s why the Lab Wars concept works so well. It attributes tremendous importance not to scientific results, but to the proxy accomplishments we sometimes overvalue—competitors bested, papers published, prizes earned, the size of our labs. In fact, the major currency of the game is something called “Impact Points,” reminding us all that we treat certain discoveries as more “valid” if they’re published in high-profile journals than in, say, Jeff and Gina’s Big Ol’ Journal of Fungus and Maybe Birds.

In this way, Lab Wars pokes fun at our misplaced priorities, finding humor in the absurdity of scientific culture. This is exactly what good satire does: It overinflates something we are guilty of overinflating ourselves. And evidently Al-Jassar and Heer struck a nerve, because more than 1600 people supported the game’s Kickstarter campaign this summer.

Al-Jassar sent me a prototype of Lab Wars to test. As a nongamer, I’m probably not the best person to review the strategic gameplay. But, at least to me, the rules seemed more complicated than a graduate board oral exam. There are Impact Cards, Lab Item Cards, Action Cards, and Character Cards. Little blue cubes are involved. Players take turns. No one gets lab work done.

Beyond the specifics of the game, though, I’m more excited about the fact that anyone could devise, and successfully sell, such an item in the first place. As scientists, our niche is not one that usually gets its own games. Engineers have Mouse Trap. Medical students have Operation. Even forensic pathologists have Clue. And what do scientists get? Gene Rummy? Hungry Hungry Grad Students? Connect FORTRAN? Cards Against the Humanities?

If people are buying a card game, not just about science but about science careers, it means there’s a slightly higher chance that nonscientists understand what we do. I feel like Lab Wars removes a tiny sliver from the wall of inscrutability that surrounds scientists.

For too many of us, work is just work. We go to the lab, solve problems, write papers, order reagents, steal bagels from seminars, and go home. (Then we probably come back to the lab in the middle of the night, which our spouses love about us.) This is part of the reason nonscientists tend not to think of us as a fun bunch.

Imagine instead if every scientist did something like Al-Jassar and Heer did, channeling excess creative energy into shareable science-related amusements. Imagine if—with our free time—we wrote science fiction stories, or gave science-related performances, or made scientific art. The more that science crosses over with art, the better for science—not just to convince the world that we’re more fun than we seem, but to really bring the right halves of our brains into the fold.

Much of this is already out there. You can speak at science cafés, where ordinary people watch science talks and drink beer. You can dance your Ph.D. You can tell stories about science with groups like Story Collider or start a blog about the real person behind your research. Last year, I met someone who sells science-themed fashion accessories, like cufflinks engraved with pictures of virus capsids.

But best of all, even if we don’t purchase or play the game itself, Lab Wars reminds us to do something it’s too easy to forget while we’re busy fretting about real-life accumulation of Impact Points: Have fun.

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