Think of all the games you’ve played, movies you’ve watched and books you’ve read where the setting is the end of the world. It’s highly likely that the situation in most of them was depicted as bleak and hostile: gangs rioting in the streets, looting for the best gear and decorating their settlements with kitty pictures. But would we really abandon our moral compasses so easily in the face of oblivion? (not that there’s anything wrong with cats, mind you.)
According to researchers, this might not be how things would actually turn out. It’s hard to study how we’d react to Armageddon without convincing us that the world is actually about to end so instead, a small international team turned to video games for the answer. I can’t say I blame them – we gamers have known they hold the answer to everything for a while now.
The team conducted an experiment with a large group of volunteers in a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called ArcheAge by developer XL Games. It’s a little hard to tell from the Steam page what this title is about because the description is so open but that’s the whole point: players can build houses, have parties, learn a trade, spend money and advance through the ranks of guilds. They’re essentially able to do as they please, and this is what made the release so well-suited for behavioural analysis.
Upon joining the server for the fourth closed beta test, volunteers were advised that everything they accomplished would be wiped out in 11 weeks. All evidence of the virtual world and what had occurred within it would vanish, so the outcome or penalty of any in-game behaviours lost their meaning. This allowed the researchers observing 270-million of them anonymously to see how the people behind the avatars would behave when they knew that the clock was ticking down.
So did everyone resort to rioting and killing sprees when confronted with the apocalypse? In actual fact, no: players acted more nicely towards each other, banding together to work as a team rather than focusing as much on their individual success. The researchers found that rather than wreaking havoc, most chose to spend their time hanging out with fellow virtual comrades. The majority of players stopped anything to do with character advancement or progression and instead became more social.
Of course, there were a few outliers intent on causing mayhem who resorted to anti-social behaviour such as murder. But the report states that for the most part, the virtual world became a calm and peaceful place. As said by team-member Dr Jeremy Blackburn from Telefonica Research and Development in Barcelona:
People don’t really go off the deep end, they just stop worrying about the future.
It’s impossible to say whether such an online test would truly mimic an Armageddon experience, and we’ll never know what we’d actually do unless impending doom actually hit us. But research has shown that the behaviour exhibited by players in an online world isn’t very far from human behaviour in the real world – so the experiment could be a good approximation of an end-times scenario.
Don’t you think that’s kind of comforting, that people might prioritise friends and community in the face of an impending apocalypse rather than going nuts in some kind of mad free-for-all? With all the negativity and hate in the world today, perhaps that’s what we need to keep reminding ourselves of.