It's the favorite daydream of stressed-out college students and doomsday preppers alike — without warning, the apocalypse is around the corner, so pesky stuff like homework and bills are no longer important. Instead, all that matters is how you would react during the end of the world. Would you be the Machiavellian looter type who smashes up abandoned cars just because she can? Or would you round up your friends for one last feel-good drum circle before the end of all things?
These are all important questions when you're procrastinating, but apparently, it's also the kind of thing scientists like to think about. In a study to be presented at the World Wide Web conference in April, researchers from the University of Buffalo analyzed the actions of players of the medieval fantasy game ArcheAge as it drew to an end. Based on apocalyptic TV shows, you'd think that society would immediately descend into dog-eat-dog chaos, but according to the study's results, people are far more benevolent than you'd think.
Prior to ArcheAge's official release in 2013, players could participate in a trial version of the game lasting about 11 weeks. At that time, everyone's information would be deleted, so their actions in the last few days didn't matter. In other words, the (virtual) world would end at the end of the trial, and the players knew it.
After the game ended, researchers analyzed 270 million records of player behavior from the beta test, classifying them into 11 categories like murder or partying. As the game came to an end, they found that there was an uptick in murder — but that was committed by a small, outlying portion of the population. In fact, most players actually strengthened relationships with each other and made new friends before the "apocalypse."
Basically, a few people took the chance to wreak havoc with no consequences, but overall, most people actually went the opposite route.
Researcher Ahreum Kang compared it to sitting next to someone on an 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," he said, according to Science Daily.
One adage did turn out to be untrue: "Even if I knew the world would go to pieces tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree." The idea is that even in the face of annihilation, people still give meaning to their actions. According to the study, however, that's not quite the case. Near the end of the game, players "abandoned character progression, showing a drastic decrease in quest completion, leveling, and ability changes," researchers wrote. Knowing that their actions ultimately meant nothing, people stopped improving their characters.
This is one of few studies about how people would react during the apocalypse. Most research on the subject takes a different tack: figuring out why people are so obsessed with the idea of the world's end. The general consensus is that it assuages existential dread by naming a specific time and date for the end of the world. Rather than anxiously waiting for death to come at some unknown time, "apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats — the fear of our mortality — predictable," neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek told Scientific American. There's also an aspect of romanticizing the end of the world — people who like to dream about the apocalypse tend to focus on going back to nature and shooting zombies, conveniently ignoring the more difficult aspects of a postapocalyptic society (or lack thereof).
Then again, if the University of Buffalo study is anything to go on, the postapocalyptic scene might be more benevolent than one would think. Obviously, its results can't generalize perfectly to the real world; they're based on the actions of players in a video game. But it's as close as researchers can get to simulating the apocalypse without, well, bringing on the apocalypse. Something tells me they'd have trouble getting administrative approval for that one.