Is there such a thing as free will, or are our actions predetermined by the way our brains work? If recent research conducted at North Carolina State University is anything to go by, it might seem that the latter is more likely to be true - at least when it comes to gaming. After analyzing the behavior of 14,000 players of the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, an NCSU team was able to predict the future actions of those players with up to 80 percent accuracy.

In World of Warcraft, players earn virtual badges for achieving various goals. The researchers analyzed data on which badges individual players had earned, and in what order. Patterns began to emerge, in which certain achievements were shown to have a recurring correlation with other specific achievements - if a player did A, then X number of steps down the road, they were likely to do B.

These related achievements tended to bunch into groups known as cliques. Any player that had attained some of the achievements in one clique were found to be likely to pursue other achievements in that same clique. Any one clique could consist of over 80 different achievements.

Some of that predictability, of course, could simply be due to logistics - once players achieve a certain status via specific actions, they are then able to perform certain new actions, so they proceed to do so. Some of the linked achievements within cliques, however, appeared to have no obvious logical connection - earning a badge for skill in unarmed combat, for instance, was shown to have a high correlation with earning a badge for world travel.

"A good game stands on its own," said Dr. David L. Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NCSU. "If you want to improve it, you have to make sure players will like any changes you make. This research can help researchers get it right, because if you have a good idea of what players like, you can make informed decisions about the kind of storylines and mechanics those players would like in the future."

"This work could obviously be used for World of Warcraft or other MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games], but it also applies to any setting where users are making a series of decisions. That could be other gaming formats, or even online retailing."

The study raises at least one interesting question: is our behavior in the real world equally predictable?