By sharing and building upon each others’ knowledge, humans have developed repertoires of cultural practices and technologies that have enabled us to survive everywhere from the tundra to the Earth’s orbit. However, it can be difficult to study the multigenerational processes that give rise to these repertoires. How do communities navigate the balance between exploring new innovations and exploiting and passing down existing technologies? We analyzed player behavior in One Hour One Life, a massively multiplayer online game where players live out virtual “lives” in communities of human players (N = 19,319 unique players, 324,957 lives lived, 3,084 communities). This game provides a unique opportunity to watch cultural evolution unfold in a microcosm: Players form enduring communities, and each player can contribute incremental improvements to vast technological repertoires shaped over many generations. Our preliminary results suggest that, overall, individuals do not contribute equally to their community’s repertoire; a small portion of the community contributes the bulk of technological innovations. Further, the communities with the most extreme divisions of labor—where the fewest players contributed the most innovations—were also more successful in raising children to adulthood. Ongoing work dives deeper into how division of labor within communities contributes to their success. This work sheds new light on what makes successful collaborations thrive in large scale interactions.


I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where I work with Sam Gershman and Fiery Cushman. I am interested in how human social cognition supports effective teaching, learning and collaboration. My research approaches these questions using a combination of behavioral experiments with children and adults, computational cognitive models, and neuroimaging. I completed my PhD in Psychology at Stanford University, where I worked with Hyowon Gweon, and a B.S. in Brain & Cognitive Sciences at MIT. You can sometimes find me sketching scientists at talks. Twitter: @natvelali