When an astronomer and an astrobiologist discuss interstellar alien conflict over coffee, great ideas are spawned.
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.
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..."