Away in a Laboratory

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

Aside from all the other things that come with it, the winter holiday season is a time that inspires a certain amount of weird scientific research... especially out of Australia, for some reason. I've always wondered whether this is more because of, or more in spite of, the plethora of scientists who don't celebrate Christmas and therefore have a lot of time on their hands this season. In any event, as is often the case with absurd science, such holiday-themed studies often has more implications for gaming than more serious science does.

Here are a few highlights from the world of Christmas-related science published this year as well as a few words as to why a gamer or storyteller might care.

In the Western world, the holidays are, perhaps more than anything else, a time for consuming mind-altering substances, primarily but by no means exclusively alcohol. Alcohol is a required component in many classic Christmas dishes, and because such dishes may be consumed at the workplace during work-hour parties, a certain percentage of people are actually working while tipsy at least once during the season. Just last week, I had the dubious pleasure of trying a co-worker's homemade tiramisu, which contained so much rum than a single piece left me more than a little buzzed. This wouldn't be terribly exciting in many workplaces, but bear in mind that I work at a major metropolitan hospital; I could have been seeing patients while still under the influence of tiramisu. A group of Australian researchers pondering how common this is took a traditional Christmas pudding, a dish known to be able to raise the blood alcohol level above legal limits, and tested how much alcohol was present after all cooking was completed. They found that although they did isolate quite a lot of alcohol from the cooked pudding, they didn't isolate enough to raise the blood alcohol level of an average-size man or woman to impaired levels. They concluded that it was therefore safe for people (specifically hospital employees, the population of interest to them) to consume Christmas pudding at lunchtime and resume work in the afternoon. They note that they tested only certain popular store-bought puddings, whereas they estimated that home-made puddings likely had a higher alcohol content. Their results may not apply to someone like me, who weighs almost twenty kilos less than their assumed weight, but even someone my size would have to eat an unusually large volume of pudding to be impaired.

Take-home message for storytellers: first, that characters probably won't get drunk from consuming alcohol-laced foods, which has happened in games I've played in, and second, that your game probably won't be overly disrupted if there's a Christmas pudding at your next session.

Another group of researchers -- also Australian, by the way -- were inspired to conduct an experiment to determine the optimal strategy when two people are pulling Christmas crackers. Their small sample of participants -- mostly the authors of the study themselves -- rigorously tested several different strategies for pulling crackers, including applying different levels of force and pulling in different directions. They found the "surprising" result that a player had a significantly better chance of winning if they played passive-aggressively, i.e., just held on and let the other player do all the pulling. The authors note that although this was the clear winning strategy, it would obviously lead to stalemate if employed by both players at once.

Take-home message for storytellers: Aside from the implications for grapple checks and the next time that the fate of your campaign world depends on a tug-of-war over a magic wand or mighty artifact, this reminds us that sometimes it's best to let the players grab the reigns of the story and let them break things, because you're still the one left holding the prize.

Finally, here's an actual serious study, yet again out of Australia. The authors wondered whether athletes taking a two-week break during the holidays would have impaired performance when they returned to play. They examined a group of professional athletes before and after a two-week break from playing sports. Because the break coincided with the holiday season, players were exposed to more unhealthy food, more alcohol, and probably more of various other unhealthy things in addition to having reduced activity. After the break, weight and sleep were both unchanged, while overall there were actually small improvements in cardiovascular health and general fitness/performance. The authors concluded that the benefits of a period of rest, relaxation, and merrymaking appeared to outweigh the costs of a brief decreased training regimen.

Take-home message for storytellers: Even for elite athletes -- high-level adventurers, for example -- it's useful to take the occasional break to rest, recharge, and engage in a moderate amount of debauchery.

And above all, every major holiday is an excuse for the eccentric old mage or wacky artificer to enlist a band of heroes to help with some new experiment.