Scientists simulate ant warfare with Age of Empires: 'The most boring way to play a video game'

Age of Empire IV
(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

What you need to know

  • Australia's national science agency and the University of Western Australia are using Age of Empires to simulate ant warfare.
  • Australia has spent millions fighting invasive ant species, and the simulated battlefields have provided data that may help improve the outcome of battles between native and invasive ant species.

Back in 2002 if you were a kid in Australia or the US it was very likely you sat down to open a box of cereal for your morning breakfast. It was also likely you found a copy of Microsoft Studio's Age of Empires on a physical disc inside the box. Age of Empires has grown way beyond its humble beginnings as cereal box loot. You may not find Age of Empires at the breakfast table these days, but you can find it in the halls of the University of Western Australia.

In a partnership with CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, the University of Western Australia's researchers have been using the real-time strategy and battle simulator to solve a crisis involving invasive ants. 

"Ants are one of the few groups of animal species in which warfare resembles human warfare, in terms of scale and mortality," Dr. Samuel Lymbery, a researcher working on the project, told ABC Australia.

The research team constructed multiple battle simulations within Age of Empires and ran them multiple times to generate mathematical models of potential battle outcomes. They then repeated the battle parameters in the lab to collect real-world examples. If you think running ant battle scenarios repeatedly in Age of Empires sounds like a great time, Dr. Lymbery disagrees: "This is probably the most boring way to play a video game."

While the computer models are predictable, the battles between the live ants were less so. Researchers were then able to pinpoint commonalities and differences between the real and simulated battle results. The resulting data could be used in the future to change the way Australia approaches habitat management for native ant species in a bid to give them the upper hand.

If you want to simulate your own ant battles, you can play Age of Empires IV now on Xbox or PC via Game Pass.

Cole Martin

Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.