I guess it was inevitable that once humanity got Doom running on everything, including cash registers, Twitter, and unreleased consoles, that we would have to seek out a new formidable challenge. Now that we’ve nearly done it all, it’s not about how you play Doom, but who you get to play Doom. First up, apparently, some cute rats!
As spotted by PC Gamer, neuroengineer Viktor Tóth has spent the past year tinkering with an odd question: Can you train rats to play Doom, the classic ‘90s FPS by id Software? After building a new VR-like system for the rats, creating an input method for them, and even designing a training program and reward system for them to partake in, Tóth has sort of pulled it off. Kinda.
According to a blog post on Medium, Tóth explains that after using a large monitor to create a pseudo-VR-like experience for the rodents, he then began training three rats using automated methods, with minimal intervention on his part. The main goal was to teach the rats how to make their way down a short corridor rendered in Doom II, eventually reaching the end of the tiny level. The small level does contain a single Imp demon that can be killed and Toth’s weird rat-Doom-VR setup does offer a way for the rodents to blast the demon away via the in-game shotgun. But it turns out training the rats to shoot demons was tricky and he “lacked the time to actually reinforce the behavior.”
So how do rats play Doom? A good, if also a bit strange, question. A single rat is placed into a small harness, then placed on top of a polystyrene ball connected to motion sensors. The ball sits on some ball bearings and the rat can move the ball to move in the game. In front of the rat is a large, curved monitor, surrounding them and creating a VR-like environment. Or maybe the rat isn’t tricked by the big screen, but just likes playing Doom and goes along with it all. Who can say?
Based on the blog post written by Tóth, it’s a lot more complicated than what I just explained, but I’m not a rat expert nor neuroscientist, so if you want to learn more about all of the details, go read his full report.
Your next question is probably why? Well, the goal wasn’t just to get rodents way into Doom II. Instead, Tóth hopes to make future VR experiments using rodents cheaper, more accessible, and less stressful for the test subject.
“The promise of the project is a relatively cheap (<$2000) VR setup that automatically trains rodents to traverse 3D environments without restraining them too much,” writes Tóth, “While refraining from surgical procedures to provide the least stressful circumstances for them. Rodent VR rigs have had their presence in neuroscience experiments in the past; I hope to see more such studies to come!”
Oh and before I end this blog, I should mention the names of the 8 week-old Long Evans rats used in the experiment. They are, fittingly, Carmack, Romero, and Tom—some of the main devs behind the iconic original Doom. According to Tóth, Romero was fearless, Carmack was often seen building things around his home and Hall was shy, but ended up doing very well in the VR rig.