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World of Warcraft gives clues to ward off global pandemic

23 August, 2007

Virtual online games can teach epidemiologists lessons about how infectious diseases and pandemics like bird flu might spread in the real world, as a recent bug in the online game World of Warcraft has revealed.

The discovery, by two researcher in the United States, has been published in the September 2007 issue of the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The researchers are Eric T Lofgren from the Tufts University Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Diseases (InforMID), based at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, and Professor Nina H Fefferman from the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, at Rutgers University, Piscataway, in New Jersey.

They used computer simulations as a research tool to model disease outbreaks and pandemics, but they did not incorporate the unpredictable nature of human economic and social behavior (such as that found in virtual role-playing games) that are difficult to validate.

The highly popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft had a problem recently when a programming error caused a highly infectious disease called ‘corrupted blood’ to spread among the virtual characters which included travelers, teenagers and pets.

The disease soon spread to densely populated cities in the virtual world, with many deaths in the population.

What also interested the scientists was the ‘social chaos’ that followed. Some of the players welcomed this unexpected feature of the game, but the
game company tried its best to remove the problem.

The company tried to deal with the ‘outbreak’ using a number of quarantine procedures. But since the ‘disease’ was highly contagious and since they could not seal off the affected part of the ‘world’ and since the players did not have enough ‘resistance, the only way to resolve the problem was to reset the game, wiping out any data relating to the infection.

Lofgren, who was a participant in the game, brought in Fefferman to observe it. They found possibilities for epidemiological research, since they work with computer simulations of disease.

The game suggested a missing factor, the unpredictable nature of ‘stupid’ human behaviors like going in and out of quarantine zones, or assuming that they won’t be infected if they come into contact with an infected person.

The researchers suggest that epidemiologists could learn a lot by integrating a controlled disease outbreak into a game world as a way to observe human reactions to disease.

This, they added, would have to be done in such a way as to be part of the user’s expected experience in the game so that a reasonable simulation of
real human behavior might be captured within a model.

The online game environment brings with it the advantage of large player numbers. World of Warcraft, for instance, has over 6 million players worldwide.

Lofgren and Fefferman wrote in the journal: “By using these games as an untapped experimental framework, we may be able to gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of infectious disease epidemiology in social groups.”

They are now working with a game company to pursue the idea further in a number of game environments.




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