Drs. Thomas Targett and Duncan Forgan, both of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, wondered how rigorously they could simulate conflict between competing alien civilizations. Of course, the big problem they faced was a lack of proxies. The only civilization in the galaxy that we know of is us, and it's hard to simulate space battles without adversaries.
It was during coffee time that they were struck with the notion of using a video game -- StarCraft II -- as a guide. In StarCraft II, three races -- the technologically advanced, telepathic Protoss; the insect-like, hive-minded Zerg; and the Earth-exiled, human Terrans -- battle it out for control of the Koprulu Sector, a vicinity of space presumably at the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Targett and Forgan now had their competing civilizations, and the next step was to set up a model. As described by Forgan on his blog:
We created a population of stars similar to the local Solar neighborhood, and seeded it with six different races, each representing one of the three civilizations, carrying out one of two strategies.
The "macro" strategy refers to species which build up large amounts of resources before moving against an opponent in an attempt to overwhelm them; the "micro" strategy encourages rapid motion of a smaller military force to quickly eliminate a fledgling opponent. This gives 30 possible combinations of combatants. As we had access to user data showing the outcome of each combination rehearsed many times in StarCraft 2 games played online, we could soon develop a probability that Race 1 defeats Race 2, and so on and so forth.
With their model set, Targett and Forgan were ready to commence the simulated galactic conflict. Using what's called the Monte Carlo method, they conducted one hundred replications of their standard simulation, in which six different combatants were randomly seeded onto separate planets and then began colonizing nearby systems. If a civilization attempted to colonize a planet currently occupied by another race, the two would do battle, with the winner taking control of the system and the loser being forced to launch another colonization mission from their original location. Winners and losers were determined based on the probabilities gleaned from StarCraft II data.
Over time, the simulated galactic battleground (seen above) would resemble a rainbow patchwork quilt, with the colors representing space controlled by the six different civilizations. Individual simulations were deemed complete when one civilization controlled over 70% of the map, when the races' territories remained roughly constant for a number of time steps, or when the map was completely occupied for a set time period.
And the winner? Overall, Targett and Forgan found that Terrans pursuing a micro-economic strategy colonized far more planets than expected by chance, and "would eventually conquer their Zerg and Protoss adversaries."
As the Terran marine from StarCraft would exclaim, "Outstanding!"
Targett and Forgan readily admit that the number of repetitions and the fictitious nature of the alien races preclude any meaningful conclusions about humanity's future space colonization exploits.
"This science outreach project certainly does not represent any development in our understanding of possible extra-terrestrial life. However, we hope to highlight the increasing scientific potential of the rapidly expanding video-game industry, while also increasing public understanding of the scientific method," the authors write.
"But thankfully," Forgan notes, "it does seem like Earth has a slight edge when it comes to interstellar dominion..."
Via Well-Bred Insolence and StarcraftScience