Tuesday, 04 February 2014 09:52

An Assay (on Cards) for ‘Reliably Funny’ Scientists

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cards-against-scienceDavid Harris's crowd-sourced and downloadable Cards Against Science
game features 500 question and answer cards for your next lab party.
"Why is my bench sticky?" one card asks. If the answers, "Rotation students" or "Because the Bible says so," strike you as particularly funny, then you need to download and print out a new open-source card game called Cards Against Science. It was created by a physicist for scientists including non-physicists (like cell biologists), although with its references to spermatozoa and Drosophila, it wouldn't hurt to know your pipette from your elbow.

Like everything else connected with biology, the game evolved, descending with change over time in the face of natural selection. Or in this case, unnatural selection. Its earliest common ancestor was Apples to Apples, a family-friendly "game of hilarious comparisons" that won the National Parenting Center's seal of approval in 1999. (Apples to Apples descends from a public domain ancestor known as the dictionary game, played with a dictionary, slips of paper, and pencils.) As hilarious as it was for family fun, Apples to Apples suggested adult possibilities to a group of alumni from Highland Park High School in Illinois who in 2011 launched a Kickstarter project to fund their version of a comparisons card game for grown-ups. They called it Cards Against Humanity, telegraphing the change in tone with a politically incorrect name.

Could science be far behind? Seizing the challenge, ASCB member David Harris, who edits the magazine section of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, came up with an open source variation of the game, intended for grown-up scientists or at least grown-ups with Bio 101 or Physics for Non-Majors on their transcripts. Harris recalls that when he first played Cards Against Humanity, "It occurred to me that you could easily make a version for scientists that could be suitably fun and geeky that you could play at a party among scientists." Being a trained scientist, he invoked scalability at once. Instead of coming up with hundreds of cards on his own, he crowd-sourced the effort, building a portal where people could send in suggestions. He recruited the material through Facebook and Twitter.

Within weeks, Harris's crowd-sourced cards had swelled to about 500. He debuted the resulting game at Science Hack Day San Francisco in September. It was hugely hilarious. Now "Cards Against Science" is available for free download and home printing onto 3x5 index cards. The next big venue for the game will be at the Science Online conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Harris's game follows the same simple rules as Cards Against Humanity. In each round, one player acts as the judge, reading aloud a question card. The other players select one of 10 answer cards in their hand, seeking the card more likely to tickle the judge who alone must decide on the basis of truth, probability, and/or hilarity, which is the best answer. If your card is named the top answer, you get one point. You get enough points, you win. "The way the game is set up, each round is judged by a different person, so it doesn't have the bias towards what one person finds funny," Harris reports. He does note that, in field-testing the game, he discovered, "Some people do seem to be more reliably funny."

Harris is determined not to know how many people have downloaded the game. "I'm not too concerned about how widely it gets picked up. It's just a project for fun and something I wanted to share with the science community," Harris says. But as word spreads, his "Cards Against Science" portal keeps getting more card ideas. He currently has about 400 more suggestions, and is planning to put out expansion packs of cards. "I'm looking to do themed [expansion packs]... one in physics, one in ocean science, or one in biology," Harris explains, In the first version, there were too many "references scientists won't get because it's outside their field."

All you need to get started is a printer, 3x5 index cards, a group of like-minded scientists, and some alcoholic beverages. "I've only seen it played once where there was no drinking," Harris reports. He doesn't plan to repeat the experiment. Sometimes you need some help in appreciating the answers to "Why your PCR didn't work."

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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