Dinosaur Top Trumps!
About a year ago I picked up a pack of Dinosaur Top Trumps. The game invokes slight nostalgia for my youth, and I figured the dinosaur set was a form of scientific toy, so might have some relation to my research.
If you're not familiar with Top Trumps, it's a card game played in rounds, based on getting a high value card. Each set of cards is themed, and each card will have a set of values relating to that theme. For Dinosaurs it's height, weight, length, "killer rating", age and "intelligence rating". Players take it in turns to call out the category, and the one with the highest value wins.
When I got home, I glanced at them and mused on the odd cultural economy of dinosaurs and slightly bizzare facticity of much children's non-fiction media. At least I thought about it for about 30 seconds and then left them on a bookshelf and largely forgot about the whole thing. I was reminded of them last month while re-reading Buckingham & Scanlon's discussion of dinosaur books, where they (rather cheekily, but darn accurately in my opinion) compared the cult of the dinosaur in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon. Its all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago some friends and I were bored, and I dug them out for a game. So, some observations based on our lazy Sunday evening game.
Firstly they are very pretty. The images are quite detailed, more Walking with Dinosaurs than the Isotype style Katherine's just discussed. These are reasonably realistically rendered dinosaurs, not cartoon ones. Although, there is still something clearly illustrated about them; they looked more like oil paintings than CGI.
Secondly, the great thing about Top Trumps is each round is very quick, which pleases the more impatiently competitive players amongst us (ahem), but this doesn't leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned. What is more, why do we assume bigger is better? It is purely a matter of highest number, which when transferred to stats about dinosaurs, becomes a matter of size. As we played, we largely forgot about the dinosaur, regardless of the pretty picture, until I implemented a new rule (which I then refused to play when I realised how hard it was) that to win a round you did actually have to pronounce the dinosaur's name.
Thirdly, a few of the cards just had 'n/a' instead of a value. What's that about? In a Dr Who set we also tried, one character was n/a in size, because it was largely immaterial (a sort of electronic baddy living in the tv), but there were quite a few in the dinosaurs set too, and with no clear reason why. We could see in the pictures that these beasts clearly did have a height, so why wasn't it recorded? How can the height of a dinosaur be not applicable? The sociologist of science in me desperately wants to argue its a subversive attempt to inculcate cultural acceptance of the lack of certainty in production of scientific 'facts', but more likely it's a lazy researcher somewhere. It could refer to a lack of scientific consensus or evidence relating to this particular measurement, but then why 'n/a' rather than simply 'unknown', or a simple question mark? I have a memory of a similar set my cousins had when we were kids, where the values were sometimes a little looser (e.g. "between 1.2-3.6m"), which I guess reflected scientific debate. But this memory is foggy, I may have made it up. Whatever the reason, the values scores given in the dino cards are so decontextualised its impossible to tell.
Moreover, and this is where things get weird... because oh my goodness, if there isn't a theoretical dinosaur? Well, an image of what a dinosaur would have looked like if it had evolved into man. It's another one with n/a length. I'm inclined to say this because IT IS IMAGINARY, but it does have a mass, and height.
As we played on, this human-dinosaur soon became the acknowledged rubbish card - unless you happened to call intelligence it was way too small and weedy to win anything. Which, if we're working through cultural symbolism, might say something about man's place in (semi-fantastical) images of nature.
All in all, nothing especially surprised me in this game (with the possibly exception of the pseudo-dinosaur), Buckingham and Scanlon largely say it all in their comparison to Pokémon, but a fascinating example nonetheless. If you are interested in what other aspects of the world (and associated knowledge of it) have been pokémon-ed Top Trumps style, the wikipedia entry is pretty detailed or the official site, Planet Top Trumps, is worth having a look through, though its hard to navigate. If you want a more scientifically-sanctioned version of the game (for free download) try the Natural History Museum education department. For those more into media studies/ sociology than science, there are also David Gauntlett's 'theory' trading cards.