Researchers use a game to show the end of the world might not be so bad
If you read the news, you know that we live in dangerous times. Whether it be the current political situations around the world, the changing climate, the rise of AI, the possibility of a meteor strike, the potential of animals suddenly turning on humans in a Planet of the Apes-like takeover, or some other horrific end for the vulnerable meatbags that dominate the Earth, the specter of the apocalypse looms. It’s a fun way to start every morning.
But while the idea of the last days of humanity probably elicits images of people throwing trash cans through store windows and a general sense of anarchy, a new study using a video game seems to contradict that. In fact, the end of the world may not be so bad.
Truly researching how things will play out if civilization falls is a difficult thing to study. Putting aside that the way society may break apart would have a huge impact (nuclear war would be much different than a plague, for example), shy of tricking a huge group into thinking they are all about to die and then monitoring them, you can’t really simulate the experience in real life. Digitally, however, is a different story.
A group of researchers turned to the game ArcheAge, an MMORPG that offers an open-world setting and no specific goals. Basically, people can do whatever they want and live out their digital lives in a multitude of ways. If you want to avoid combat and become a merchant, more power to you. If you want to be a party planner and create the odd rave, go for it. If you want to take on a Lord Humungus-like role and sit outside settlements with your horde demanding that the inhabitants walk away, just walk away, all that’s stopping you is recruiting your minions.
A research team led by the University of Buffalo created a custom server in the game with the primary goal of seeing how people might react in a doomed world. It was open to anyone, but there were three primary rules everyone needed to understand: First, all of the data would be deleted in 11 weeks. Second, everyone would start with a new character meaning the players would all start on an equal footing. Third, everything, including all interactions, would be monitored by the research team.
“We believe that the end of the [game] is a relatively good approximation of an ‘end times’ scenario, and thus the present work is not only useful for the understanding of players’ behavior but can also begin to shed light on human behavior in general under such conditions,” the researchers wrote in their study.
Generally, in games like this there is an emphasis on becoming more powerful. You gain experience, and with experience comes new levels that open up more possibilities, as well as increased stats and attributes. The more you play, the more you can do. It’s a core pillar of all RPGs, especially those set online with other players. With an 11 week limit on the server, however, that changed how players approached thing. It wasn’t worth grinding for days in a forest filled with medium-tough enemies so you could gain experience. Instead, players actually focused on the social interactions.
According to the researchers, people did still go out of their way to level up, but not nearly as much as players outside of the experiment did. They also sought experience much less aggressively than those without a time limit, and many quests were completely ignored.
The players spoke with each other more, and the longer the experiment went on the more friendly the interactions became. As the end neared, personal interactions even became happier. They knew it was all ending, but they were grateful for the time they had together.
While this is obviously not a comprehensive study, nor does it truly confirm that if the world is falling apart humans will come together, the researchers did record over 270 million moments of player behavior, making it one of the most comprehensive studies on human psychology in decades.
The study probably won’t ease many fears as an asteroid hurtles toward us on a collision course, but there is at least some hope. If the game is representative of how humans will behave in our last collective moments, the end may not be all that bad.