Because the world is so complex, social sciences have always had a hard time quantifying social interactions. But more and more people are playing computer games and, in their digital world, you know all the parameters of their life and their interactions with others, explains Stefan Thurner, professor of the science of complex systems, in Vienna. This provides a great opportunity to study societies and groups, as well as a new way of teaching. The scope of applications for games has become enormous.
Online societies and groups
Massive multiplayer online role-playing games, also called MMORPG, have become a societal phenomenon. A large number of people are spending a HUGE AMOUNT of time online playing games. When playing MMORPG there usually isn’t a specific goal. It’s all about impersonating a character and making it evolve in the digital world. Players can do what they want. “They meet other players, they cooperate, they compete, they form business groups, friendships, etc.," says Stefan Thurner, professor and head of the Complex Systems Research Group at the Medical University of Vienna. "We, on the other side, can record everything they do.” It has been shown that multiplayer games recreate the kind of relations and social behavior that guide people in real life. “In the game, you know their universe. Who they meet, who they trade with. It’s the first time we possess a complete set of information on a society and it’s wonderful material for social studies!”
The example of Pardus
Pardus is a free Massive Multiplayer Online Browser Game (MMOBG), set in a futuristic universe: traders, pirates, smugglers and others of various professions, races and factions strive to gain wealth and fame in space. It was developped by a former student of Stefan Thurner, Michael Szell, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It has almost half a million people registered and more than 10,000 active players.
"This huge number allowed us to study social networks and collective behaviors between the players. For example, we addressed gender issues such as How do women organize social networks differently from men? We have studied their mobility in a network-shaped universe. The results have been published in Scientific Reports, the open access journal from Nature, under the title 'Understanding mobility in a social petri dish'. We also tried to address the issue of the emergence of good and bad behaviour in 'Emergence Of Good Conduct, Scaling And Zipf Laws In Human Behavioral Sequences In An Online World.' It’s a hugely rich dataset.”
A university game?
“It’s getting more and more complicated to get people away from their screen," says Thurner. "What we want to do is to have people educated through the screen and the game.” On July 14th, 2012, people gathered in Paris to attend a workshop call NightScience. (See our article in French and English.) Stefan Thurner was amongst them to discuss news ideas for the future of education.
Learning through Research
“What we dream of is to create a university as an MMORPG. You start this game from scratch and to get to the higher level you have to perform some tasks. Depending on your level the task can be to learn how to count or calculate. Or you could have to go to Mars. In this case, you have to build a rocket; hence you need to understand how it functions, the chemical reactions etc. You have to learn how gravity works to define your trajectory to go to the red planet. You may not notice you are learning because you are focused on the task you want to achieve. “First it’s a game but you learn while playing. And then maybe when the task is over you can get a 17-year-old super engineer!” When students have collected a certain number of points in a task, that could mean that they have gained a certain level of knowledge. They could then skip the lectures at school including the knowledge already gained through the game.
We are looking for money to build this project. We think we will need a million dollars."
“In western countries, and especially in Europe, the quality of education is going down," continues Thurner. "We need new approaches. The old way is not much fun and it is becoming not very efficient, either. So people are trying new methods and we know from Darwin that in the long run, the fittest will survive.”