An interesting behavioral experiment was recently carried out on a Minecraft server, one that I think quite neatly thumbnails the whole of human history. To summarize, a server admin set up a world with a 350×350 area walled off from the rest of the map. Players were placed inside with just two rules: don’t leave the walled area, and the game doesn’t begin until everyone is online. Nobody knew there was an experiment going on, they just went about their Minecrafting business as usual. What ensued an epic grab for resources, trade agreements, wars, and an eventual stripping of the world’s resources down to the cold gray stone below.
As soon as the game began, players split into factions, each adopting its own style of play. Among them was the underground-dwelling team of “dwarves”, the merchant’s guilt that hoarded resources and engaged in complex trade agreements, and a small group of griefers who lived on a floating island and only came down to cause mischief. A few groups were beaten into non-existence, leaving their survivors to wander the land aimlessly. At the end, everyone was fighting over the last few scraps of material, including coveted patches of grass needed to grow food. You can see the ravaged landscape in the image below.
Here’s the question posed at the end of the article: if, after this event played out, the walls were lowered and players were set free, what would happen? Would everyone learn from their squabbling and work together, or would the same scenario play out over a larger canvas? I have the answer for you, in case you were wondering: the latter.
Yes, humans do have that nugget of “let’s work together and be friends” buried within, but in a game of Minecraft, it’s not like children will starve to death if you don’t get a few blocks of cobblestone. One would hope the shiny Star Trek side of humanity would come to the forefront in a virtual world, but instead we see the reality that we’re still creatures walking around the planet, not idealistic superbeings. Survival trumps all, and since we’re animals before we’re humans, I think that will always win in the end. After all, how successful can a species be if it doesn’t put its own survival first?