Starcraft and its sequel Starcraft 2 are wildly popular real time strategy computer games made by Blizzard Entertainment. They are played by people from all over the world. In fact, Starcraft 2 was the top selling computer game of 2010 and continues to be played by millions of gamers, even being featured in highly publicized worldwide tournaments. It has recently come under the microscope of legitimate science as researchers tout it for the incredible expertise required to become a master of the game. While chess was historically used as a major measure for cognitive speed and power, Starcraft is now used as the true measure for cognitive fortitude due to its added complexity, fast pace, and rapidly changing infinitude of variables. There is even research being performed by the SFU Cognitive Science Lab on the extreme mental capacity required to compete with the Starcraft elite. The set of abilities is called Skillcraft. The chess masters of yesterday are like bumbling children compared to the Starcraft masters of today.
Drs. Thomas Targett and Duncan Forgan, both of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, wanted to know how humans would fare in a cosmic battle between other space-faring alien races. War and destruction are after all what humans do best. The problem is that the only space-faring species we’ve ever seen is, well, us, and we’ve just barely left our own rock. What would an alien race look like? What would their capabilities entail? What motives would they have? Are they as insanely militaristic and imperialistic as us? Are they so technologically advanced that they can remain invisible and spatially aloof to the point that they could be standing over your shoulder reading this without you even realizing it?!
None of these questions can be answered with certainty, but they can certainly be modeled. Theorizing and modeling are the foundation of all sciences. The theory is that one day there will be a war of the worlds, so how do we properly model this war? By using Starcraft, of course.
Starcraft has players choose one of three races of alien beings: the hive minded Zerg, the technologically advanced and telepathic Protoss, or Terrans, which are humans with technology based on our own present day capabilities. The pair of doctors set out to learn what they could from the endless stream of results from battles waged in Starcraft day after day. They stated that:
In a classic example of citizen science, we found that the general public had generated a vast dataset of (admittedly fictional) alien behaviour, which we could use to drive our simulations. So, we created a population of stars similar to the local Solar neighbourhood, and seeded it with six different races, each representing one of the three [Starcraft] civilizations.
Each of the six races in the simulation carried out one of two primary strategies, a macro or micro strategy. The macro strategy is one where a species builds up a vast number of resources before engaging in battle, while the micro strategy involves rapid movement of smaller military forces used to quickly eliminate developing opponents.
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. This allowed us to do two things: i) we could see if there was a preferred strategy for StarCraft 2 users to adopt, and ii) How does the balance of power change when these alien races are placed in a Galactic context?
The results were intriguing. If humans were to go to war with a hiveminded alien race, or an ancient telepathic alien race, we would be pulverized if we took the macro economic approach. However, the micro strategy grants us a great amount of advantages. While the model revealed that a micro strategy is favorable across the board for all races, a human type alien race has the upper hand when it comes to smaller, fast paced battles and guerrilla tactics. According to the Starcraft model, as long as we stick to the micro strategy, our only concern should be how to spend our time on the beaches of all our new colonized worlds.
The researchers point out that
we don’t intend to claim the Zerg and Protoss are real! We were interested in seeing how the video games industry can help scientists understand difficult topics like life in the Galaxy, where actual data is so thin on the ground.
Starcraft players of the world, you may be Earth’s only hope for successful interstellar dominion!
While it’s true that we still haven’t found life outside of our tiny stellar neighborhood, remember, life is all over the place; it’s only a matter of time!