So what is the site about?
STAR-LITE is a game designed to teach basic laboratory safety to researchers at the start of their careers; the name is an acronym of Safe Techniques Advance Research – Laboratory Interactive Training Environment (whew!). To play, you must guide an on-screen avatar through 15 safety-related “quests”, helped (and sometimes hindered) by your computer-controlled lab mates. The game is free to download and is available for PCs and Macs.
What are some of the quests?
After you have designed your avatar (warning: if you try to wear dangly jewellery or flip-flops, you’ll get told off), you begin the real game with a tour of the virtual laboratory environment. This includes an equipment storage room and a tissue-culture area, as well as a large multipurpose lab, library and staff room. Once you complete this orientation, your avatar’s next task is a “scavenger hunt”, where you must find and identify pieces of lab kit such as fume hoods and centrifuges, as well as warning signs for biohazards, flammable materials and the like. As the game progresses, you come across problems such as broken equipment and chemical spills that you have to deal with safely. One helpful feature is that before you can begin a particular task, your avatar needs to be wearing the correct protective gear. For example, if you try to handle liquid nitrogen with latex gloves instead of insulated ones, your lab mates get annoyed and you lose “health points”.
Who is behind it?
The game was developed by the Division of Occupation Health and Safety within the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to make safety training fun and engaging. The idea is that by playing an interactive video game, trainees will retain more information than they would if they just listened to a safety officer drone on about improperly stored gas cylinders for an hour and a half. (Not that we speak from personal experience.)
Who is it aimed at?
High-school students and undergraduates are the game’s main audience, but some quests could also be part of a refresher course for postgraduates or other new lab users. Annoyingly, there are no menus within the game that would allow you to choose which quests to complete, so you cannot skip irrelevant or too-simple ones once you have started playing. However, it is possible to tinker with the game files to delete quests before you begin; see the site’s FAQs page for details.
How useful is it for physicists?
Moderately. As you would expect from an NIH initiative, the game is primarily designed with microbiologists and biochemists in mind. Consequently, a few of the quests – such as operating a centrifuge and disposing of Petri dishes – will probably only interest the biophysicists in Physics World‘s readership. The game environment does include a laser room and a radiation lab, but unfortunately both are “dummy” areas that your avatar is not trained to access. This is a pity, because both the idea and the execution of STAR-LITE are excellent, and if these specialized rooms were made “live” (perhaps as an advanced game level), then it would be a great improvement. That said, the game’s designers have obviously tried to be as inclusive as possible, and quests such as storing chemicals, looking up information in material safety data sheets and identifying trip hazards are pretty much universal.
- In this audio clip, Margaret Harris speaks to NIH representative Kerstin Haskell about lab safety and STAR-LITE.