Researchers use MMO beta to study how humanity will act at the end of the world

The XL Games MMO ArcheAge ran a brief open beta in the autumn of 2014, before stumbling into what we categorized as one of the worst launches in PC gaming history. It has since found its footing, though, and more interestingly for our purposes here today, it has provided some insight into how humanity might behave if—or when, depending on your personal philosophy—the world as we know it comes to an end.

The ArcheAge closed beta ended as they usually do, with a "wipe" that reset all progress made in the game. But following the wipe, researchers analyzed 270 million records of "player behavior" in an effort to determine how people acted in the lead-up to the end. The end of a videogame is obviously not the same as a zombie apocalypse or, perhaps more realistically, a miles-wide asteroid striking the surface of the Earth, but the report says that there are significant parallels to be found in how people, individually and collectively, react to this kind of event.

"The mapping principle states that the behavior of players in online games in not very far from the behavior that humans exhibit in the real world," the researchers explain in the introduction of their analysis, entitled "I Would Not Plant Apple Trees If The World Will Be Wiped: Analyzing Hundreds of Millions of Behavioral Records of Players During An MMORPG Best Test."   

"Thus, while not a perfect mapping, we believe that the end of the closed beta test 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 report goes into considerable detail, but the bottom line is that while there were a few "outliers" who engaged in anti-social behaviors (PKing other players, basically), most of them did not. They did tend to give up on questing, character leveling, and other progress-related activities—understandably, since the end of the world renders progress irrelevant—but the social aspects of the game actually improved in some ways. 

"Via a two-level analyses, we find no apparent pandemic (system-wide) behavior changes, although some outliers resorted to anti-social behavior, such as murder (player killing, or 'PK')," the report states. "That said, we surprisingly find that chat content exhibits a slightly positive trend as the closed beta test draws to a close. Overall, players increase social interaction with others: They exchange more in-game messages (mails) and create more parties to enjoy group-play or complete high-level quests." 

Naturally, there are complexities and caveats, foremost among them being that players who were more inclined to participate in anti-social behavior were also less inclined to stick with the game right to the end. And Dmitri Williams, who authored the mapping principle paper, told New Scientist that the failure of the adage referenced in the report ("Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree," a quote attributed to Martin Luther) isn't surprising in this particular context. "There’s a big difference between planting an apple tree even when you know you’re going to die because then your kids can enjoy it, to the world is going to end and there will be no apple tree for anybody ," he said. 

But the researchers concluded by saying that their findings overall have implications for both game design and future studies of human behavior. "We have provided additional empirical evidence in favor of the emergence of pro-social behavior," they wrote. "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." 

The full report about apple trees, MMOs, and the end of the world is available at arxiv.org. And for a more personal look at the way the world ends, be sure to read our story about the last moments of Asheron's Call, a 17-year-old MMO that was shut down in January.