Want to know how people will act if we ever discover the world is about to end? Given an obvious lack of real world examples, you’d normally have to turn to fiction for such morbid speculation, but an international group of researchers had a better idea: study the end of a virtual world for insight into human behavior.
The apocalypse they had on hand was the end of the fourth Korean closed beta of ArcheAge, with a population of over 80 thousand players. From those players, they collected 270 million anonymized records of behavior. Those records let them see how players chatted, how they quested, how they fought and how they lived throughout the entire 4th closed beta. The results of their analysis were recently published as I Would Not Plant Apple Trees If the World Will Be Wiped: Analyzing Hundreds of Millions of Behavioral Records of Players During an MMORPG Beta Test.
The apple trees in question are from a quote by Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” In this case, Luther would have been an outlier. Most players stopped questing as the beta drew to a close, and stopped focusing on activities that gave them experience. Players who waited out the end of the beta spent more time in new parties, while players who left early were more likely to hunt down their fellow player characters before they went (known as player killing or PKing).
ArcheAge offered a particularly true-to-life testing ground for antisocial behavior, as one character (a PK) killing another of the same race is considered “murder” and carries long-term consequences. That behavior did peak in the final two weeks of the closed beta, but not seriously — only 334 PKs were found. The largest group of them were those whose PK behaviour held at a steady rate throughout the beta. Far fewer dramatically increased their PK behavior as the beta went on.
Among their conclusions, which include thoughts for game designers concerned with anti-social player behavior, researchers had this to say about the real-life relevance of their research:
From the perspective of studying human behavior where behavioral outcome does not have significant meaning, our findings that players do not invest their time for advancement and some outliers exhibit anti-social behavior can help design future studies.
Also, we have provided additional empirical evidence in favor of the emergence of pro-social behavior. Our findings that the sentiment of social grouping specific chat channels trend towards “happier” as the end times approach is a first indication of this pro-social behavior: existing social relationships are likely being strengthened.
Further, we saw that players that stayed until the end of the world exhibited peaks in the number of small temporary groupings: new social relationships are being formed.
It seems that without harsh consequences, people won’t necessarily descend into Lord of the Flies-eque brutality — at least not when there’s nothing to be gained.
Can the results of this study really be extended to reality? That would be hard to confirm without an apocalyptic event, and even harder to confirm if we had one. The researchers involved in this study relied on a mapping principle established in 2010 that lays out the extent to which behaviors in a virtual world will reflect in reality, so there is some reason to believe that people may take a kinder path when faced with the end of the world.
Nice to know, but here’s hoping we’ll be waiting for the end of the world for a good, long time. Till then, it’s good to know that most players just want to enjoy the world together, in the best ways they know how.