Your parents may have told you that you can’t learn anything from video games, but some scientific researchers would disagree. Let’s look at the field of ecology. There are many different strategies for studying interactions between organisms, but it often requires scientists to go out, find, study, and maybe even manipulate wild animals. This can be time-consuming and costly, and we need to make sure the methods we are using and the information we are gleaning are worth the impact to the animal.
Take behavioural ecology research such as the classic work of Dr. Jane Goodall, a scientist who spent most of her life uncovering the sociality and intelligence of chimpanzees. While Goodall’s work was highly influential – changing the course of how we understand animal behaviour – it was also a long and expensive process. Not to mention the potential hazards involved in embedding herself in a chimp troop. But researchers at the University of Quebec, led by Dr. Maxime Fraser Franco, have determined a way to get around this issue.
Fraser Franco and their team have used a video game called Dead by Daylight to study predator and prey interactions, avoiding the need for field studies to answer a host of ecological questions. Their research appears to be one of the first of its kind and uses data from the game developers and players’ stats to simulate ecological interactions. Within the game there are many different predator avatars available, each with their own skillset, so only 15 avatars were chosen for the data analysis. Lucas Stevens, a Haligonian and avid gamer, said, “I play a lot of games, but I have a tough time seeing how one could relate video games to an ecological context.” But Fraser Franco’s team feels there is a lot of potential here to look at the successes and loss of character based on the trade-offs of different attributes. Is it always the biggest, strongest or fastest that survive, or will other strategies on where to invest in a character’s skills and attributes win the day?
There are many limits to this research. For instance, they only chose to examine four behaviours: average speed, rate of space covered, amount of time spent guarding prey, and amount of time taken to capture prey. However, these behavioural traits may not really reflect real-world predator foraging. There were also 27 maps used in the data collected, therefore there could have been a lot of variety in ways of prey capture and hiding. Another concern is that the game may not provide a decent mindset of a non-human animal in context, as many people cannot fully grasp what it is like to fully rely on our survival techniques.
But this is an emerging field of study and there will likely be other games that could be better suited to this context. When asked about this, Stevens stated that he thought a game like Monster Hunter could work better, as there are many individual animals that interact.
However limited, this research also has its benefits. As scientific research becomes broader, funding can become less accessible. Using this kind of research is practically free for researchers, as they only have to access the data sets from the developers, and they do not have to go through the process of designing and carrying out a field study. They also have much more control over the variables than they would in a field study and can use the data to look at multiple different scenarios. Fraser Franco says that while the study does have limitations, it can be used as a bridging mechanism for field studies and more theoretical studies.
This research can be important for future studies, as it demonstrates an interesting new way to conduct research. And if you have ever played Dead by Daylight, your game data may have been used to support this research.
To learn more, check out Fraser Franco et al. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arac063