apocalypse doomsday
Most people will not be anti-social murderers when the apocalypse comes iStock

How will people behave when the world comes to an end? According to analysis of an apocalyptic video game, people will be surprisingly social and will only start going on killing sprees right at the end – and even then it will only be a small percentage of the population.

The game in question is ArcheAge – a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. The medieval fantasy game, available in Europe, North America and Asia, had over two million subscribers as of October 2014. People in the game can do whatever they want – combat, quests, farming, trading, voyaging etc.

A team led by researchers at the University of Buffalo used this to analyse player behaviour, using the game "as a proxy for an extreme situation". "At the end of the closed beta test, all user data is deleted, and thus, the outcome (or penalty) of players' in-game behaviours in the last few days loses its meaning," they wrote in a study appearing on the pre-print server arxiv.org.

The researchers analysed 270 million records of behaviours in over 80,000 players, looking at 75 different game actions – including combat, party (where players form social bonds with others), battlegrounds, siege warfare, raids, expeditions, quests, item production and housing.

From this they were able to work out how the players changed over the course of 11 weeks – when their virtual world would come to an end. "One problem that philosophers have struggled with over the centuries is how humans will behave in a disastrous 'end times' scenario," they wrote. "For example, how does an individual behave if his/her behaviour will have no lasting outcomes or penalties? Do we continue to follow the compass that has led us through life or do we abandon our morals, ideals, and social norms in the face of oblivion? In this paper, we examine such a scenario through the lens of a MMORPG."

Scientists analysed the player behaviour from the fantasy game ArcheAge University of Buffalo/ArcheAge

Their findings showed that most players were more likely to show pro-social behaviours as the apocalypse neared. Players did end up giving up on quests – there was a drastic decrease in quest completion over the weeks. They also saved up money initially to buy higher-tier items, but they did not continue to save up until the end, with a slight reduction in the last week.

In terms of communication and sociability, researchers found there was no drop off at the end of the test: "Although players do have somewhat changing sentiment, it is not sadness as the world reaches its end," they said.

Lead author Ahreum Kang explained: "It's kind of like sitting next to a stranger on the airplane. You may keep to yourself during the flight, but as the plane reaches the runway, you strike up a conversation knowing the end is in sight."

But what of the murders? Researchers found anti-social behaviours did increase towards the end, but that this was only seen in a small percentage of the players. Findings showed there were 334 murderers at the end.

End of the world prediction
Researchers note there are huge limitations when it comes to interpreting the results to real-world scenarios iStock

"How do those 334 players behave during the whole beta test? Our interest here is whether they were 'normal' players that turned into murderers only at the end of the CBT or whether they exhibited abnormal behaviour throughout the CBT," the team said. "There are two main takeaways from this finding: 1) not all murderers are alike, but there do seem to be some archetypes they can be clustered under, and 2) clearly there are some players who, although they did not quite go from pacifists to serial killers, did in fact show an increase in murderous tendencies as the end of the world drew near."

The researchers note there are huge limitations to their study. "We realise that, because this is a video game, the true consequences of the world ending are purely virtual. That being said, our dataset represents about as close as we can get to an actual end-of-the-world scenario," Kang said.

However, the team said the findings – which will be presented at the International World Wide Web Conference in Australia in April – do shine a light on human behaviour at the end of the world – and that it is pretty good: "We have provided additional empirical evidence in favour of the emergence of pro-social behaviour," they conclude.

"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 behaviour: 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."