If it was the end of the world as you knew it, how would you react? Hollywood and philosophers have considered the question for years, hypothesizing that humans will either turn on each other, as in The Purge, or go out with the kumbayah-like resignation of the Melancholia cast. If you fear the apocalypse will go hand in hand with mayhem, scientists have some good news: They predict that when doomsday comes, humans will actually be pretty chill.
In a paper to be presented at the International World Wide Web Conference in April, computer scientists from the University of Buffalo explain that their research shows most humans will react to an “end times” scenario by being helpful and passive, not violent and antisocial. They came to this conclusion after analyzing 275 million records of player behavior in a massive multiplayer game called ArcheAge that modeled an apocalyptic scenario.
In the study, the researchers monitored the gameplay of approximately 80,000 players for 11 weeks. The players were told that at the end of their trial period, the server for the medieval fantasy game would be wiped, and all virtual characters and virtual property they earned would be deleted. In essence, the virtual world would come to an end.
As the (game’s) end neared, the researchers noticed behavior that wasn’t too surprising. Players used their avatars to indulge, engaging in combat, partying, and building houses. But as the very end of the 11 weeks drew near, thus “ending the world” of the game, they found that most players exhibited prosocial behavior, such as chatting with other players to strengthen their existing relationships and form new ones. The researchers also saw a dramatic decrease in quest completion. They found that the majority of the players essentially decided to quit working on the game and enjoy the company of their peers.
These were, incidentally, the same people who stuck out the game until the very end. In contrast, the small proportion of players who exhibited a rise in virtual violent behavior also dropped out of the game early.
While the researchers acknowledge that the limitation of the study is that behavior was analyzed within a virtual roleplaying game, and not real life, they still believe the results are indicative of how people would react.
“We realize that, because this is a video game, the true consequences of the world ending are purely virtual,” said study co-author and postdoctoral researcher Ahreum Kang, Ph.D., in a statement. “That being said, our dataset represents about as close as we can get to an actual end-of-the-world scenario.”
While this is a fair point, what’s even more important is that there’s a growing body of research that says how people act in games is a fair indication of how they act in real life. Furthermore, researchers have found that the behavior of avatar players is a reflection of what the players want to be — similar to the scenario presented in Westworld, where a person’s real identity shined through during play. Games are proving to be a good model to learn more about emotional realities, doomsday scenarios included.