When it comes to social science experiments of questionable ethics, we often think of Stanley Milgram and his experiment in which subjects were told to administer (fake) electric shocks to an actor and how the majority of the subjects continued to do so even after the actor pretended to be dead. However, this finding that people will obey even the most horrible demands was not completely new. Predating the Milgram experiement by forty years, Carney Landis conducted an experiment that gave similar results, even though they were in no way related to the purpose of his experiment.
In 1924, Landis, a grad student at the University of Minnesota wanted to know if all humans made similar facial expressions when in a particular emotional state. For example, do all of us make one facial expression when we are happy? To test this, he gathered other graduate students, drew black lines on their faces and exposed them to various emotional stimuli. Some of the tests simply had them watch a film or take in a strong scent, such as ammonia. During each test, he would take snapshots of the subjects’ faces and record the position of the face lines. While some of the tests got somewhat strange- he eventually had the subjects watch pornography and dip their hands into buckets filled with frogs-, there was not really anything inherently wrong with the tests.
This changed in the final test. In this test, each subject was given a live rat and told to decapitate it. Naturally, most of the subjects refused, but like in the Milgram test, eventually two-thirds of the subjects conceded and killed the rat. Landis himself killed the last third of the rats. Now the ethical problems with this test should be relatively obvious. First of all, there is no reason to kill a live animal for an experiment related to facial expressions. If Landis wanted facial expressions representing disgust, there were plenty of alternatives. Secondly, since most people don’t exactly have experience in decapitating live rodents, you could say that these rats weren’t killed in the most humane way possible. Landis noted how barbarically some of the rats were killed.
What may be most surprising- other than the fact that this experiment and the Milgram experiment show that about two thirds of humanity will kill something or someone without question if we provided with sufficient persuasion- was the fact that Landis himself never really acknowledged the issue of the rats in his formal write-up of the experiment. He was too caught up in facial expressions that he never realized the gravity of this problem. And for the record, his hypothesis was not proven. It seems there is no one facial expression we make when we feel a certain emotion.
In the case of WorldPlay, while we may kill a few plague rats in the game world, I think the thing we need to look out for is how narrow minded we may get with our research. We don’t want to focus too much on any one particular aspect of our experiments that we miss something far more interesting or worthwhile. It may keep us from doing something wrong, but on a more positive note, by being more open-minded, we might catch something extraordinary in our game time.