How Video Games Provide A Window Into Real World Behavior

As a child, my video games of choice would usually be strategy based, whether it was Sim City or Football Manager.  It’s easy to look on the hours spent playing these games as time wasted, but a recent study from Indiana University suggests that analyzing how players operate in such games could provide a valuable insight into how they operate in the real world.

The researchers used a popular football management game as their petri dish, analyzing over half a million participants and the financial choices they made in the game.  The researchers believe their findings could open up the possibility of conducting ‘big data’ research in game environments.

Big data gaming

“Our work shows that huge social experiments with game worlds and their thousands of players are not only feasible but also relevant for real-world society,” they explain. “We could use huge game worlds to practice better economic policy, or even responding to things like the Las Vegas shootings.”

The experiment saw participants given seed money to get started with an online football game.  Their behavior was then monitored alongside those who weren’t given such a ‘seed investment’.  Not only did those given a boost spend more in the game, they also backed this up with their own money at a later stage.

“This suggests that a positive change in the money supply in a virtual context leads to inflation and increased money demand, and does so much more quickly than in real economies,” the authors suggest. “Differences between virtual and real currency behavior will become more interesting as virtual currency becomes a bigger part of the real economy.”

The authors contend that these kind of experiments would previously have been conducted using virtual simulations to predict outcomes, but of course these seldom used real people.  As such they have questionable relevance.  Game environments offer the opportunity to study real people making virtual choices on a huge scale.

“We explored monetary policy in these environments by changing the money supply and observing money demand,” the authors say. “We found that giving people more money caused inflation, which increased the demand for money. These are exactly the effects you would expect to find in the real-world economy. In other words, once again, social behavior in a virtual world closely parallels social behavior in the real world.”

The researchers believe the approach could have various applications.  For instance, they’re confident it could be used to predict the effect of various policies.  They suggest that such virtual environments allow policy makers to test out policies, such as in healthcare, without actually having to implement it.  All you’d need is a game whereby characters get sick and where players are incentivized to both spend money wisely and care for others.

I’ve written a few times about games for social good, but to date most of these have been in the hard sciences.  It’s nice to see economics potentially getting in on the act too.