Have You Caught the WoW Disease?

Two years ago a virtual plague unintentionally spread across the popular MMORPG World of Warcraft now researchers want to study the dynamics of the virtual plague to see if it can help scientists model and predict the spread of real world diseases.

Ars Technica: “There were a number of features in the virtual outbreak that actually mimicked the spread of and response to real-world epidemics. A key feature was that the disease could be carried by the game’s ‘pets,’ the virtual equivalent of domesticated animals; this behavior is shared by SARS and avian flu, among other diseases. The game’s teleportation acted like air travel in allowing the disease to rapidly go ‘global.’ The humans controlling the players also mimicked the behavior of real populations during historical epidemics. As the populations of cities were wiped out by the disease, surviving players began avoiding them, and any large groups of players became scarce in the surrounding countryside.

It took only six months for the first academic analysis of the outbreak to appear in the journal Epidemiology. The article highlighted the advantages of the WoW incident, comparing it favorably to existing computer models that ‘are limited in their potential to account for changes in human behaviors during epidemics.’ At the same time, it recognized that virtual characters might not accurately track all normal human behaviors.

On balance, the analysis in Epidemiology felt that virtual worlds might provide a useful supplement to traditional models of disease spread, and suggested working with game programmers to test a variety of disease conditions. ‘Multiplayer online role-playing games may even be useful as a testing ground for hypotheses about infectious disease dissemination,’ the author said, ‘Game programmers could allow characters to be inflicted by various infectious diseases, some of which may not be visible to the player, and track the dissemination patterns of the disease in specific subpopulations.’ It looks like something of the sort is in the works. A report from the Agence France-Presse indicates that Nina Fefferman, a researcher from Tufts University, is currently negotiating with Blizzard about running epidemiological tests in WoW.”