Social Science

How Would You Behave If the World Was Ending?

Apparently most folks would be nicer to each other.



Apparently most folks would be nicer to each other. At least that's the conclusion reached by some researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo as they parsed data about player behavior in video game in which the world ends. I know. I know. It's a video game, but it's still interesting.

Years ago when I was a member of the War Games Club* at the University of Virginia, I was recruited by some social psychology grad students to play a sort of diplomacy game as part of an experiment. They recruited several other members of the club to play as well. I am not sure what the researchers hypothesized, but what they did find out was that if you tell a bunch of late teen/early twenty-something wargamers exactly how many rounds of play there is going to be, well, the ending round of play turns into an all-out scorched earth war of conquest. At least it did in our case. May as well go out with a bang!

But new research suggests that maybe other people are more pro-social. A team of researchers led by SUNY Buffalo psychologist Ah Reum Kang got their hands on 275 million records of player behavior in beta-testing phase of the massively multiplayer online role playing game ArcheAge. Since the game was in beta-testing, the 80,000 or so players all knew that it would come to an end. So what did their study, "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," find?

Our findings show that there is no apparent pandemic behavior changes even when the CBT [closed beta test] ends. While we did find that some players resorted to anti-social behavior, such as murder, aggregate sentiment through chats shows pro-social trends. When we focus on individual users' behavioral changes, we find significant differences between churners who voluntarily left the game before the end and players who stayed until the end. In particular, we found that churners were more likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. …

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. …

We also found that contrary to the reassuring adage that "Even if I knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree," players abandoned character progression, showing a drastic decrease in quest completion, leveling, and ability changes at the end of the beta test.

Only 334 out of the 80,000 or so players committed murder during the last two weeks of play. Instead most players stopped striving and started socializing as the end approached. What to do at the end of the world: Party on!

*Early political correctness note: When we War Games Club members asked student council for some funding out of our mandatory student fees (basically to buy beer), they turned us down. The next semester we changed the club's name to the Historical Simulation Society. We got the funding and drank the beer.