The dungeon is pitch black — until the dungeon master blazes a torch, confirming your worst fears. A Beholder monster lurches at you, its eyeballs wriggling on tentacular stems. As you prepare to wield your Vorpal sword, where do you focus your gaze: at the monster's head or at its tentacle eyes? Such a quandary from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons may seem like a meaningless trifle, but it holds within it the answer to a scientific question. In fact, a father-son team has used images of such monsters to show that most people will look to another creature's eyes, no matter where they are located on the body.
"Dungeons & Dragons monsters have eyes all over the place," says Julian Levy, a ninth grader at Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C. Two years ago, Levy's knowledge of the role-playing game led him to a unique solution for solving a basic scientific question: Do people focus their gaze on another person's eyes or on the center of the head, where the eyes just happen to be located?
"We were eating dinner and my dad was talking about how, after publishing a paper about gaze tracking, a reviewer said that you could never prove whether people are looking at the eyes or the center of the face," Levy recalls. So he piped up with an idea, offering Dungeons & Dragons characters as an experimental solution. Because many characters have eyes located on their hands, torso, or other areas of the body, a researcher could track viewers' gazes to see what part of the characters they focus on first.
Levy's father, cognitive scientist Alan Kingstone, of the University of British Columbia, loved it. The father-son team got to work, with Kingstone recruiting university students for the experiment and Levy combing the Web for the best examples of D&D beings. He selected 36 photos of Dungeon & Dragon humans, humanoids (nonhumans that still have eyes in the middle of their faces), and monsters (creatures with eyes positioned elsewhere). Levy set up eye-tracker equipment called Eyelink 1000 for 22 student participants, who viewed each of the character photos for 5 seconds.