Santa Fe Institute

Online 'social petri dish' offers lessons about real-world human mobility

Oct. 31, 2012 9:55 a.m.

Research begun during SFI’s 2010 Complex Systems Summer School suggests that player-interaction data from online games such as Pardus are surprisingly useful for understanding how and why people physically move in the real world.

Large amounts of data on human mobility are readily available thanks to studies of mobile phone records and location-based online social networks. But a rich understanding of the mechanisms behind the individual decisions people make – based on socio-economic factors, spatial constraints, and temporal considerations – has been elusive.

2010 CSSS participants Michael Szell, Roberta Sinatra, Giovanni Petri, and Vito Latora, working with SFI External Professor Stefan Thurner, used the vast amounts of data on players’ social interactions and economic activities generated by Pardus to study the patterns and mechanisms of player mobility. Pardus is a multiplayer online game in which gamers explore a virtual universe where they make friends and enemies and communicate, trade, and interact with one another.

“What I like most about this work is that human mobility in the real world and in virtual worlds are not all that different,” Thurner says. “One could – if one is a bit generous – interpret this to mean that the processes of traveling basically happen in our imagination, and the way mobility is finally executed is somehow secondary; we don’t necessarily need the real world to understand how we move.”

The team’s results were published in June 2012 in Scientific Reports, an online, open-access journal by the Nature Publishing Group.

Read their paper in Scientific Reports (June 2012)

Caption: Detail view of a map of the Pardus universe

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