Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Real-life epidemiology lessons from a virtual-world disease:
A fascinating - and completely accidental - case study occurred in 2005 within Blizzard's World of Warcraft, which at the time hosted some 6.5 million players of diverse age and background. Issues of race, gender, and seniority issues are built in, since the players are real people, and the world is highly social, with real-world factors such as transportation, working together, and friendships arising as a result of game mechanics and player groupings such as guilds.

One of the game's bosses infected players in his immediate vicinity with a disease called "Corrupted Blood," intended merely as a short-term, short-range annoyance - but afflicted players were able to teleport back to large population centers, effectively starting a quick-spreading epidemic, leaving central hubs littered with bones and covered in blood as players dropped dead left and right. Normal gameplay was massively disrupted.

Players panicked, both in the game and on message boards, wondering whether the outbreak was intentional or an accident. It mirrored real-world epidemics in numerous ways: it originated in a remote, uninhabited region and was carried by travelers to urban centers; hosts were both human and animal, such as with avian flu; it was spread by close spatial contact; and there were asymptomatic individuals - in this case, invulnerable NPCs.

...Interestingly, player behavior was closely aligned with real-world behavior in such situations. Those with healing capability volunteered their services in city centers. Lower-level characters who could not tangibly pitch in warned others away at city limits. Nervous players fled to areas known to be uninfected. Suspicion and fear was rampant over in-game communication, blogs, and email.

One trait was particularly enlightening: curiosity, something epidemiologists did not generally build into their models. Some players attempted to enter infected areas to witness the chaos, then rush out before contracting the disease themselves. This behavior has real-world parallels, particularly in the case of journalists, who must rush towards a problem to cover it, then rush back out.
(Via BBspot.)