Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Useful Way for the Virtual World to Inform the Physical World

Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor for Reuters, has an interesting report on how online gaming may be benefiting the real world of epidemiological research. The story is based on the outbreak of an epidemic in a virtual world:

The outbreak was an accidental consequence of a software challenge added to the "World of Warcraft" game in 2005, [Nina] Fefferman and [Eric] Lofgren report in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The virulent, contagious disease was introduced by maker Blizzard Entertainment Inc. of Irvine, California, as an extra challenge to high-level players. But, just as a real virus might spread, it was accidentally carried out of its virtual containment area.

"Soon, the disease had spread to the densely populated capital cities of the fantasy world, causing high rates of mortality and, much more importantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of deadly disease," Fefferman and Lofgren wrote.

"When this accidental outbreak happened, players embraced it. Some thought it was really cool," Fefferman said.

The makers did not. They reset the computer game to eliminate the disease, wiping out any data that may have been collected.

However, while this was the end of the story in the gaming world, it was just the beginning for Fefferman and Lofgren:

Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist, immediately recognized human behaviors she had not ever factored in when creating computer models of disease outbreaks. For instance, what she calls the "stupid factor".

"Someone thinks, 'I'll just get close and get a quick look and it won't affect me,'" she said.

"Now that it has been pointed out to us, it is clear that it is going to be happening. There have been a lot of studies that looked at compliance with public health measures. But they have always been along the lines of what would happen if we put people into a quarantine zone -- will they stay?" Fefferman added.

"No one have ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave."

She will now incorporate such behavior into her scenarios, and Fefferman is working with Blizzard to model disease outbreaks in other popular games.

"With very large numbers of players (currently 6.5 million for World of Warcraft), these games provide a population where controlled outbreak simulations may be done seamlessly within the player experience," she wrote.

There is, of course, the question of whether or not gamer behavior should be taken as a reflection of how they would react to a real-world crisis; but, regardless of how they would act in the real world, it may still be an indicator of how they would think. What may be most important is that these first results have been published in a journal with internationally-recognized authority. As such, it may be one of the first instances of published results in "hard medical science" being based on an analysis of social behavior in a virtual world (recognizing that Fox cites a similar article by Ran Balicer in Epidemiology); and Fefferman and Lofgren deserve recognition for that achievement.

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